Osteria Francescana, Modena
A coveted three Michelin Star rating; number three in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and the highest ranking Italian restaurant for the past 5 years; 2012’s ‘International Chef of the Year’ by The Daily Meal, Osteria Francescana is kicking culinary goals. It wasn’t my only motivation for moving to Italy, but it was right up there.
In just my first month living in Northern Italy I made the train journey to the medieval town of Modena, situated in the culturally rich region of Emilia-Romagna. Home of Ferrari, balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano, proscuitto and Lambrusco. And home of Massimo Bottura.
There is a glint of madness in Massimo Bottura’s eyes, one which sparks his passion to push the envelope of modern Italian cuisine. Often described as the avant-garde ambassador of Italy’s gastronomy, Bottura regains a strong sense of tradition and inextricable bond to high quality local produce. With story telling dishes diners are given an insight into Italy’s culinary culture and taken on a sensory journey with each mouthful.
My mouth was watering before I even stepped into the discrete entrance of Osteria Francescana on a secluded side street of the city. With only 12 tables, split between two dining rooms the feeling is very intimate. Boturra a lover of the arts, music and popular culture, his walls are hung with an interesting collection of works, perhaps not to my taste, but fitting for the modernist aesthetic of the dining room.
A procession of youthful, black tie suited waiters had us seated and watered and so commenced the next four hours of sensations.
Thankfully our waiter took the hardest decision of the evening out of our hands, which menu to choose. Diners have the option of the A La Carte menu or three Tasting menus: Traditional, which pays tribute to Emilia Romagna; Classics which is a ‘best of Osteria Francescana’; and Sensations, dishes from the experimental kitchen. He suggested we leave it up to the Chef and would receive a degustation from all three menus.
What followed were twelve unique stories told through twelve inspired dishes. Having spent the last few weeks absorbing Italy’s culture and learning about the importance of regional produce and specialities I was in awe of Boturra’s playful representation of heritage and extension of flavour. It was simultaneously the most Italian and least Italian meal I have experienced.
Fleshy salt cod on a bed of diced tomatoes and resting in a pool of the most amazing lemon zested extra virgin olive oil was the first dish to awaken my tastes. Perhaps my favourite dish, ‘An eel swimming up the Po River’ tells the story of an eel’s journey from the lagoons of Comacchio to the canals of Modena, along the way collecting ingredients such as Campanine apples and corn. The eel is glazed with Saba, a sweet grape juice reduction recovered from making balsamic vinegar, possibly the most delicious syrup I’ve tasted. With the ashes of burnt onions and smears of crisp green apple and buttery polenta, a perfectly balanced dish I could eat several times over.
Bottura continued to surprise us with an oyster of lamb, snails with black truffle and herbs and an ode to Parmigiano Reggiano. Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano were presented in the most interesting dish I think all Italians and visitors alike need to experience. Five temperatures and textures: a light demi-soufflé made with a 36-month aged cheese, a fragrant cream made with 24-month aged cheese, a foam from a 30-month aged cheese, a crunchy galette with a 48-month aged cheese and a nearly invisible foam made with an intense 60-month aged cheese. It inspired a whole new appreciation for the trademarked cheese.
Undoubtedly the most intense punch of flavour I have experienced all year goes to the faux icecream stick. It looks a lot like a Golden Gaytime icecream (for the Australians) and I got rather excited. But what prevailed was the richest combination of foie gras with a liquid center of 50 year aged Balsamic Vinegar Tradizionale, coated in crunchy IGP hazelnuts from Piemonte. Holly Molly. Many around the table took it down in one mouthful, which I have to commend. I took one bite and probably should have stopped there. Just a taste is enough to appreciate this flavour bomb.
The final dessert was one of Bottura’s signature dishes, ‘Oopps I dropped the lemon tart’. It is Bottura’s way of making fun of perfection and how modern cuisine and in life we are always striving to be flawless. It is the best smashed lemon tart I have tasted, maybe they should be dropped more often. The delicate crust of the pastry and the sour lemongrass ice cream contrast the sweet zabaione filling. Candied lemon and cardamom are scattered around the plate and add to the tart, sour, sweet, hot flavours which hit your palate.
The wine list must also be mentioned as it is more of a bible than a list. It features wines from the world over but I feel that you should stick to the Italian offerings to be in line with the experience Bottura is trying to convey. We enjoyed a lovely Frappato from Sicily, Aglianico del Vulture from Basilicata and finished on a Moscato di Pantelleria again from Sicily.
Massimo Bottura is certainly evolving Italian cuisine. Each dish tells a story of tradition and terroir yet it is not stagnate and lost in time. Every mouthful is playful and inspired. Osteria Francescana is moving Italy beyond the stereotypical notions of Italian cuisine, it was definitely a refreshing and thought evoking experience for me.
Osteria Francescana: Via Stella, 22, 41121 Modena, Italy