It’s a modest entrance that belies the wonder that is Massimo Bottura’s restaurant, Osteria Francescana, in a back street in Modena. Take a right fork in the road off Corso Canal Chiaro as you move away from Modena’s Piazza Grande into via Stella and pretty as it is, in its inimitable Italian way, it’s not where you’d first think to find a 3* Michelin restaurant voted 3rd best in the world in London last Monday at the prestigious San Pelligrino World’s Top 50 Restaurants Awards. The door didn’t open; it was locked. But I’d been heard and as it was opened to me and I was greeted by – three or four people? – I entered a whole new world. A little like Alice, I’d entered a small doorway into a world of magic where things aren’t always what they seem – their lemon tarts for instance.
Ah yes, the lemon tart, known at Osteria Francescana as ‘Ooops. I Dropped the Lemon Tart’. It was one of the things that led me there. That and Masterchef the Professionals when I watched the finalists being taken to Modena in one of the series’ final programmes last December and saw Massimo Bottura show the contestants how he made one of his signature dishes – the lemon tart. I was awed by Massimo. He’s been likened to an Italian version of Heston Blumenthal but for me, Bottura’s food looked not just like art but food I’d actually want to eat. Food I would love. Food cooked with passion and enthusiasm as the artist Bottura created dishes in his kitchen that spoke to me of … You have to go to Modena; you have to eat there. And so, on my first morning in Bologna on Wednesday, having arrived only the previous evening, I set off across the city after breakfast to the train station and headed out to Modena.
Once through the entrance, I was greeted by elegant, modern sophistication. I was shown into the dining room. One of two I guess as the restaurant has only 12 tables and this one had just six. I was the first to arrive – though more diners soon followed and all tables filled. Calm grey-green walls were adorned with Damien Hirst-like dots on white backgrounds (perhaps they were Hirsts). It could have been a bit intimidating for the single diner but so warm and friendly were the waiting staff that I only felt pleasure at being there.
I had of course looked at the restaurant’s website before I went and studied the menus. I’d thought I might choose their Tradition in Evolution tasting menu. But while it looked wonderful, once there I thought maybe at lunchtime I was happier choosing a la carte than a 7-course menu. As it turned out, there were so many extras – wonderful, delightful surprises – that I pretty much had a tasting menu anyway!
Wine was discussed. I only wanted a glass of wine – I’m not good at drinking much early in the day and I didn’t want to risk feeling I’d had too much and spoil the whole experience … or get on the wrong train back to Bologna! The sommelier was perfection: red or white; try a little of this one and then maybe you can try a little of another later. It ended up with me having a small glass of white to begin and then he suggested when my main course was due that I might like some red.
I guess I was being given half a glass each time as in the end I paid for one glass of wine, but they were good amounts and I felt I had enough wine for my meal. I thought it was such an extraordinarily good touch, to offer me the wine in this way; no sommelier had ever been so thoughtful before.
Then the bread came. First – and yes, there were two ‘courses’ of bread! – was a whole small sourdough loaf served with olive oil. Later this was removed and a basket with rolls and little croissants with the ‘seed of rice’, which were delicious, and the most amazing long grissini. Being such a bread lover it was tempting to tuck in with enthusiasm but I was also conscious there was a lot of food to come.
The amuse bouche came: From Modena to Mirandola.
Some cotechino – a spicy pork sausage from Emilia – lay on top an almond biscuit and it was all topped off with a zabaione made with a local wine. Oh my! It was a wonder. I had never tasted sausage like this: so light yet full of flavour; the whole dish an amazing contrast of textures and tastes. This was followed by another extra – another dish from the tasting menu I hadn’t ordered but was seemingly enjoying: Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich.
The ‘memory’ of this dish refers to Massimo’s memory of his childhood when every day his mother packed a mortadella sandwich into his lunch box; he talks of it being part of his soul. Mortadella is Bologna’s most famous sausage, seen everywhere and in every restaurant in the city. But for Massimo, he wanted to reach much further than the simplicity of just putting a slice of mortadella in some bread. He wanted to capture the pure taste of the mortadella without any of the greasiness. He spend 4 years creating this dish: the mortadella is prepared in a special way and a syphon used to create of foam, a mousse, of pure mortadella with a creaminess that is all of its own with no other additions. It is served with a crisp gnoccho and some pistachio. To eat a food that is at once so familiar – who hasn’t eaten lots of mortadella! – yet so different in its texture and intensity is a revelation. Magic: Signor Bottura is a magician.
Now it was time for my first chosen dish: ‘Il tortellini del ditto mignolo’: Minute Tortellini in Capon Broth.
Now tortellini in brodo is a classic, almost iconic, Bolognese dish. This is the dish that an Italian will tell you must have in Bologna, not ragu. But here, at Osteria Francescana, it surely had to special. And it was. The tortellini were cooked to the exact moment of perfect al dente firmness and wrapped in a rich combination of cream (from a special local cow, I was told) and Parmigiano cheese that had been aged for 36 months. I savoured each little tortellino. I’d been spoilt for life; I texted my daughter that tortellini at home would never been good enough again.
With my main course due to arrive, it was at this point I was offered a glass of red Piemonte wine to go with my pork. I’d chosen Milk Fed Pork with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena.
The pork was suckling pig. It lay on a fennel puree and was served with jus, asparagus, horseradish and aged balsamic vinegar. As with every dish, the waiter explained each detail, including that the vinegar was one of the chef’s own produce. I love this, the detail, the enveloping you in the passion of the food that has been created for you. This is food that delights the eye, sets up huge expectations – and then delivers. The pork was so succulent and tasty; the fennel was such a perfect match with a surprising depth of flavour; the jus rich and gorgeous and that thick, velvety balsamic like no other.
When the dessert menu came there was no doubt of my choice for it had to be the lemon tart. But first an extra: a wonderful mix of mascarpone and elderflower and little crispy pieces of meringue.
Then the glorious ‘Ooops. I Dropped the Lemon Tart’.
Massimo has spoken of creating this dish to poke fun at our daily striving for perfection and pristine beauty. You can see the chef as an artist so clearly here: the expression of his passion yet also a delightful playfulness. A gorgeous, rich buttery crust is broken over mascarpone ice cream which lays on a deeply lemony custard. It’s an explosion of vision and taste; a delight to look at and to eat. Coffee came with more sweet delights, almost irresistible little mouthfuls of cake and chocolate. ‘Almost’ because I could manage only a couple. I was quite full by now, but pleasantly so.
I’d imagined Massimo must be away, knowing he was in London on Monday night for the awards but he suddenly appeared, going to a table of four and greeting them like old friends. I imagined they were friends. But he came round and spoke to everyone and it was so nice to meet him. As everyone else was having photos taken with him, I thought I would too.
What a wonderful experience it had been. Inevitably my expectations had been so high that they could have been dashed easily by one disappointing course, one slip-up in service. But everything was perfection, the whole experience a delight, and I’m so glad I went.
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