The Epicurean's Atlas: Osteria Francescana
ADDRESS Via Stella, 22, 41121 Modena MO, Italy
M assimo Bottura may be aged 60 and famous around the world but, in a sense, he has never left home. He was born in Modena, and he is still there. He says that his gastronomic inspiration came from his grandmother Ancella: “I grew up under the kitchen table, at her knees.” Now he has his own three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the oldest part of the city.
Bottura started his career with a simple trattoria in 1986. Although he was already applying the rules of French haute cuisine to regional dishes, he wanted to learn more. In 1994, he sold up and went to work for Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo and also put in a stint with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. When he opened Osteria Francescana in 1995, it was with the intention of reinventing the region’s cuisine via deconstructions of well-known recipes – literally, in the case of a dessert called Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart. Some of his best-known dishes are witty takes on the products for which his region, Emilia-Romagna, is noted: balsamic vinegar, Parma ham, mortadella, tortellini in broth (which, Bottura says, would be his pick for his last meal because his mother used to make it for him) and Bottura’s all-time favourite ingredient, Parmigiano Reggiano, or parmesan cheese. He makes a dish of parmesan prepared five ways. Aged for 24 to 50 months, at five temperatures, including mousse, galette and “air”, he calls the dish “a monochrome in shades of white.” It is, he says, “about one ingredient and one idea explored in depth with different techniques. This dish is grounded in terroir and yet projecting into the future.”
“Culture is our motivational force. I am making references to many things – art, music, history, literature”
This is very much the Bottura style: take something familiar and change it out of all recognition, while at the same time doffing his toque to regional tradition. His inspiration comes from his family, from other chefs and from artists in several spheres. “Culture is our motivational force,” he says. “I am making references to many things at the same time – art, music, history, literature. What I am concentrating on is deep flavour and meaning.” Which is presumably the impetus behind dishes such as Black on Black, a squid ink and black cod tribute to the late, great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Or Camouflage, the civet of wild hare in custard that he calls a nod to Picasso.
The wine list looks more like a coffeetable book than a selection of bottles. That is not surprising in a restaurant of this calibre, but what is unexpected is the list’s contents. Yes, there are the international greats but, perhaps more importantly, in an area that makes wine (where in Italy doesn’t?) just not the kind that top-tier restaurants tend to serve, the list is eclectic. Emilia-Romagna is known for its sparkling wines and Giuseppe Palmieri, Bottura’s Sommelier, has sourced so much really good Italian fizz that, despite vintage Krugs, Pol Rogers and Cristals, the Italian sparkling wines take up more pages than the French. More impressively still, his list features several Lambruscos, from producers doing something really interesting with this muchmaligned sparkling wine, such as Cantina della Volta and Modena-born Marco Gozzi. Wines from the Colli Piacentini, the hills bordering Lombardy, and the Colli Bolognesi are also featured. The prices for these littleknown wines are startling in the best sense; the wines are also adaptable enough to work equally well with Bottura’s creations as with the simple local fare that is their original accompaniment.
At first, Bottura’s ideas about food were unpopular with the traditionalists in EmiliaRomagna. But that changed. “There is a big revolution in Italy, and I am part of this revolution,” he has said. “I’m very involved but it is not easy because in Italy you live in an open museum. We have 2,000 years of history, so we are very closed. If you want to change something, it’s very complicated.” Perhaps so, but he seems to have managed – both on the plate and in the community.
In addition to his Michelin stars and his perennial appearance on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (including making the number one spot in 2016 and 2018). Bottura has a green Michelin star for his initiative Food for Soul, which takes surplus ingredients from restaurants, markets and supermarkets to his refettorios, where it is refashioned into nourishing meals for vulnerable people. “Our aim,” he has said, “is to demonstrate that this approach is highly effective in improving conditions for people and food ecosystems alike. We have to feed the world; we have to fight waste.”
He comes from a tradition where nothing is thrown away: his grandmother had the thriftiness to use every scrap, and his refettorios have repurposed that idea. He is at least as invested in the emotional aspect of his food as in the wines, or indeed the accolades. Some part of every dish must, he believes, connect you to who you are and where you come from. A sentiment with which every winemaker on Palmieri’s list, whether from Italy or elsewhere, would fervently agree.
Photos courtesy of Osteria Francescana, Paolo Terzi