Osteria Francescana has been of interest to me not simply because it is the #2 restaurant in the world, or because it boasts 3 Michelin stars, but largely due to the reputation of its chef owner, Massimo Bottura.
In 2012, when a devastating earthquake hit the Emilia Romagna region, one of my favorite foods faced an uncertain future. Well over 300,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese were shaken to the floor from their aging boards and damaged. When a restaurant chef turns the misfortune of his hometown into a personal mission to bring aid, people take notice. When he successfully ensures that the industry comes out without losing jobs or its future sustainability, people begin to pay CLOSE attention.
Chef Massimo Bottura’s worldwide “social gesture” as he called it, took a classic Roman dish and finessed it into an homage to the farmers and artisans of Emilia Romagna. It was a resounding success. Rissoto cacio e pepe was a global hug of sorts, to the citizens of Modena from the worldwide community who appreciate what they offer year after year. Chefs and home cooks alike prepared the meal, serving enough risotto to use up all of the cheese in jeopardy of being lost.
In 2015, chef Bottura and his wife Lara founded the Food for Soul Foundation. They created a soup kitchen like no other. Refettorio Ambrosiano aimed to eliminate food waste from the 2015 Milan Food Expo, by bringing in some of the top chefs from multiple continents to create beautiful food from ingredients that would otherwise be thrown out. It was a fine dining experience with added purpose, and no check at the end of the meal. Ambrosiano still exists today, long after the Expo has ended.
In 2016, the same motivation to bring some joy and a nutritious meal to those who don’t often have the opportunity prompted Bottura to take his passion for feeding his fellow man a little farther down the road. Refettorio Gastromotiva opened in Rio de Janeiro, and with the help of nearly 80 chefs from many countries, the surplus food from the Olympic Village provided those living in a situation of “social vulnerability” the opportunity to experience, as the organization calls it, “nourishment, culture, and dignity.” Through partnerships with other sources of surplus, Refettorio Gastromotiva also continues its efforts today, long after the Olympians and fans have gone. 2017 saw the opening of a similar project, Refettorio Felix in London.
Having the opportunity to visit a 3-Michelin-starred restaurant that is currently ranked #2 in the world, and that has held all top 3 spots in the past 3 years is an amazing opportunity. When the man behind it is an enigmatic combination of chef, artist and unstoppable humanitarian, it is even more special.
With all of the projects chef Bottura has going on outside of Modena, we certainly didn't expect to see him walking around the corner in front of the restaurant as we were waiting for it to open. So kind and friendly, he told us he'd just flown in that same morning from an event in Bangkok, having also recently been in London and New York. He graciously smiled for a photo, before assuring us that the restaurant would be opening in just a few minutes, and then heading back around the corner to carry in another armload of supplies.
As promised, the doors were unlocked at precisely 12:30, and guests were escorted inside. Coats were taken and we were shown into one of 2 small dining rooms.
The menu offers a la carte options, as well as two chef's tasting menu options, with wine pairings available for each. We selected the twelve course "Tutto" (everything) menu. While I didn't record the names of all of the pairings, they were expertly matched.
As each plate was presented, the dish was explained and sometimes finished at the table. Course after course, something new and curious arrived. While we had our own "favorites," each one was unique in its own story and inspiration.
As our aperitif arrived, we were presented with a selection of amuse bouche.
Insalata di mare
The first course was interesting in part because the ingredients are stacked in and on top of one another, with a trio of crisps tucked in, further obscuring the fish and roe inside. The plate was finished at the table with a spritz of colorful "flavors of the sea."
The second course is a play on three classic preparations of sole. The salted and slow cooked fish is served "en papillote," under a cloud of shimmery, charred, edible salt water paper.
Rice: green over brown over black
The first of three camouflage-themed dishes in this meal. I saw more a week later, apparently this is a popular motif in Italy. Flavors representing the rolling hills, the flat land, and the sea.
Autumn in New York
Savory, sweet, umami, just a bit of tart & creamy. This course was beautiful and delicious. The plate arrived with the ingredients in the shape of the apple, and was finished with the apple dashi at the table.
Civet, game, snails, herbs, and ravioli
This is the point during a meal like this where I try to keep in mind how much food is yet to come. I try to pace myself, and share what I can't eat with my date. The savory, earthy herbaciousness of this dish made that simply impossible.
Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures
The next dish is a Bottura signature dish. What is arguably the most famous ingredient to hail from Emilia-Romagna is celebrated in a most spectacular display. 5 ages of cheese, manipulated into 5 components, and presented in a way that much like the tri-colored risotto, can change with each bite depending on what is arranged in the spoon.
For those who don't mind putting in a little effort to acquire 5 ages of cheese and a couple of specialty tools and ingredients, this recipe is featured in Bottura's book "Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef."
The crunchy part of the lasagna
Another highly anticipated dish for anyone who has heard chef Bottura talk about the emotional connections to the foods of his childhood. Hand chopped meat in a rich ragu paired with airy béchamel foam, scooped up on crisp pasta. Crunchy, and satisfying, yet lighter than the original.
A second dish playing on the theme of camouflage, both artistically with the sauces, as well as a "leg: that is actually a meatball prepared with leg meat and foie gras.
Ciliegie, amarene, duroni, marasche, e pane secco
At this point in the meal, we begin to transition towards dessert. Emilia Romagna is known for its cherries, in many varieties. This dish showcases their varying flavors along with cake and creamy ricotta.
Millefoglie di millefoglie
Though it appears small and delicate, there is so much of the flavor of autumn packed into these few bites. Though not as colorful as some of the other dishes, visually this was one of my favorites.
Oops! I dropped the lemon tart
Another Iconic (and delicious) signature of Osteria Francescana, this plate celebrates life's mistakes, and the beautiful things that can come from them. The array of flavors lined up next to the deconstructed tart provide one more opportunity for each guest to enjoy a myriad of flavor experiences, all on one dish.
As we finished our dessert, chef Bottura emerged from the kitchen to greet each table. He of course asked about the meal, and if we would like to take a photo in the dining room as well. No one would ever have guessed that this man had flown in from Asia just a few hours before arriving to serve lunch and chat with his guests. I have heard that he seems to have an unlimited supply of energy and congeniality, and I now know it to be true.
Final Bites to end the meal:
Croccantino of foie gras
Camouflage: a hare in the woods
Just as we feared that we could not possibly eat another bite, these artful little nibbles arrived. From a "cherry" that bursts in your mouth, to a (third) camouflaged bite that makes you wonder why you haven't been eating rabbit's blood with chocolate all of your life; these were the perfect way to end a beautiful meal.
Interested in a visit to Osteria Francescana? There are a few things that you should know. The restaurant is currently booked out 3-4 months in advance. Reservations go online at 10am (Modena time) on the first day of the month, so the next reservations to become available will be on February 1st for the month of May, March 1st for the month of June and so on. It is still advisable to double check the calendar on the website in advance, as it will indicate the day and time you may submit a request. Reservations go in SECONDS, so you'll want to figure out your particular time difference and set an alarm. If you don't get a reservation, stay on the wait list. Some people will have requested double dates in an effort to get in, and sometimes plans change. Please note that when your reservation is accepted you will need to provide a credit card to hold your spot. They'll re-confirm you the week before in case you need to cancel, but no-shows are charged 250 Euros per person.
Whether you make it to Francescana or not, I still recommend checking out their sister restaurant in Modena, Franceschetta 58. It's much easier to get a reservation (e-mail them at the beginning of the month before your visit) and is much easier on the wallet. Stay tuned for more from me on this one, it is definitely worth a visit.
Serving lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Closed Sunday and Monday