by Joel Porter - Friday October 11, 2013 9:10 am
Via Stella 22, Modena, Italy www.osteriafrancescana.it
Luciano Pavarotti and Enzo Ferrari didn’t have a huge amount in common, but they did share a birthplace: Modena, a prosperous Italian town about 90 miles north of Florence. Although the tenor and the car manufacturer are Modena’s most famous sons, the town is better known in culinary circles for its production of the finest balsamic vinegars money can buy (and, boy, you can spend a lot on vinegar here). Over the last few years, though, Modena has become known to foodies around the world for another reason – Massimo Bottura’s restaurant Osteria Francescana, currently ranked third best in the world.
The restaurant sits down a quiet Modena side street, the small rust-coloured building completely inconspicuous aside from a small gold plaque by the door bearing the name ‘OSTERIA FRANCESCANA’. Inside, we are greeted by gentle jazz music (Bottura’s a big fan), and a small army of waiters who show us to one of the restaurant’s twelve tables, which are split across three separate dining rooms. For a place with such a reputation, it’s surprisingly intimate, welcoming and completely relaxing – the perfect place to enjoy dinner.
And what a dinner. Opting for the eight-course tasting menu entitled ‘Classics’ we are treated to dish after dish of outstanding food. There were tiny freshwater fish entombed in a thin disc of tempura and served with a capione ice cream of truly immense flavour; salt cod fillet cooked sous-vide and surrounded by a tomato and olive broth so fragrant you could smell it coming ten feet away; beautifully delicate saba-coated eel with cream of polenta, apple jelly and burnt onion powder; and playful desserts such as the foie gras crunch lolly – hazelnut-coated terrine with a balsamic vinegar jelly running through the middle. Even the breadsticks were the best you’d ever tasted.
About halfway through the meal, I’d already put my miniature spoon into a shot glass containing ‘a compression of pasta and beans’ before Bottura bounds over to the table to stop me. My first bite delayed, he holds the glass aloft and explains that the dish’s elements represent his gastronomic heritage.
‘At the base there is a Crème Royale which I learnt from Alain Ducasse and at the top there is air of rosemary which I picked up from Ferran Adria’, he tells us. These two elements sandwich the emotional part of the dish, a compression of Parmesan and beans that reminds Bottura of his grandmother. With a grin, he concludes: ‘So we have Ducasse at the bottom, Adria at the top, and my grandmother in the middle’, before moving to greet another table and allowing me my first bite, which I’m certain tastes even better now.
We were at the table for a good three hours, making our way through a meal that was impeccably paced and served. The sommelier, who was relaxed and unpompous, guided us to a reasonably-priced local wine that managed to match all our courses well.
Osteria Francescana clearly isn’t somewhere you would eat everyday; it’s a magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime experience of sublime cooking from a truly special chef. A rare treat.
Photos Paolo Terz