Set behind a subtle pink facade among the gorgeous Spring pastel-colored walls of Modena, Italy, Osteria Francescana owns worldwide fame for its revolutionized style of Italian cuisine. A wildly passionate and toweringly extroverted person, the head chef Massimo Bottura is given to strokes of inspiration that cause him to stop traffic and call a friend with his new dish idea at a second's notice. He won his first Michelin star in 2002, his second in 2006, and his third in 2012. The chef and his team are given prominent billing on the first season of Netflix's Chef's Table documentary.
Massimo has a celebrity chef's CV to go with his celebrity restaurant. He has worked alongside Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adria (of El Bulli fame), and Georges Cogny. He opened Osteria Francescana in 1995 to an almost continuous river of criticism from conservative Italian chefs, who accuse him of "poisoning the national cuisine." A more reasonable reaction might be to say he's injecting new ideas into a very traditional style of food.
Expectations for this world-famous restaurant were sky-high for me. Bottom line: Massimo lived up to his ultra-celebrity in culinary art, and while his food definitively knocked it all the way out of the park, the service did not.
PRICE PAID: $251 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10
There's a ton that could be said about Massimo, his restaurant, the city he comes from, and the culinary traditions therein. High praise of Modena's cuisine goes back as far as Cicero, who praised the town's food culture while writing his Philippicae (a series of speeches condemning Marc Anthony), and that was almost 2,000 years ago. Situated right between two tributaries in the Po River valley, Modena historically grown some of the richest fruits, vegetables, and proteins anywhere in Europe or in the world.
The door unlocks with great drama, and we are led through a series of hallways and passages to the main dining room. The place settings are classier and more spare than I would have imagined. The place is more Ritz Carlton, less punk rock than the reputation of the chef would suggest.
The interior had a decidedly Alinea-like feel to it—neutral, grayish colors, intense lighting, over-thick carpet, art with frames and subjects that match the tone of their surroundings. You know, birds sitting calmly on perches and shit.
A quick note on service—between seating and even getting our menus a really, really, really long time elapsed. Like, 35 full minutes. And, in a surprise move that has only ever happened at one other 3-star, the sommelier totally botched one of the table's drink orders.
First up, an ice cream of river fish—"Italian fish and chips" is the description we get. The ice cream is super cold and sets off the warn, crunchy wafer fantastically. Great start. 9/10.
Continuing the theme of dessert first—a "macaron" of tomato and stewed rabbit appeared alongside pillows of bread with codfish capers and tomatoes. The flavors and textures in both were perfectly matched, and the theme is clever. 9/10.
What would an Italian restaurant be without a shitload of bread sticks? We get an Olive Garden-quantity to munch on between courses, which as it turns out is often a really long time. Some hand-carved scoops of butter accompanies, which are utterly amazing. 9/10.
And now onto the first main course—a dish ever-so-playfully titled "Misery & Nobility" consists of oyster with a warm savory prosciutto broth in the ceramic canister underneath. The oyster is a perfect reflection of the flavors of the ocean—it is coated in seaweed and fried for an emphasis of its saltiness. The liquid prosciutto has a pretty, filtered, refined flavor. I'm detecting some kind of analogy to Land & Sea in there somewhere, but that's as far as I can decode this guy. 8/10.
Caviar, right? Nope, lentils! The dish is made with the belly of eel, crème fraîche, crunchy bread, and citrus. I have to say that the end result tastes exactly like caviar. A really cool effect, my only quibble is that there is way too much of it. 9/10.
The jelly sitting astride this dish is made from belly of suckling pig, which enhances the salinity of the pork belly and mackerel underneath. The vegetables, too, are really lightly pickled producing a pretty salty dish. Though this is the flavor it is known for, the mackerel is overly fishy and oily, which doesn't go perfectly. Saffron lends color but the flavor is hard to detect. 7/10.
Yogurt, potatoes, and tzatziki sauce on a plate of gnocchi. Small shaped spheres of celery—cooked quite al Dente—give a nice texture interplay. Tiny, shredded up peppermint leaves are a really nice touch, they build a strong mint flavor on the back of the palate which pairs perfectly with the potato-y pasta. 8/10.
One of the absolute classics of the restaurant: "Eels Swimming Up the Po River." Eels from the Po River valley, which itself surrounds Osteria Francescana, are famously delicious. If you care to listen, you can buckle in for a really long, complicated story about how dish is an analogy to some sort of escape of the Estense Dukes from Ferrara to Modena in 1598, forced upon them by an ambitious Pope who wanted their eel marshes. Anyways, the eel itself is cooked sous-vide with a coating of saba sauce and some onion ash, creamy polenta (on the right), and a brilliantly sugary wild-apple jelly (the green sauce). It's toasty warm and basically perfect. 10/10.
This next dish is titled "Autumn in New York," and it's an interpretation of Billie Holiday's hit 1934 song Autumn in New York. Zucchini with white beets, peas, asparagus, with a smoked porcini mushroom infusion broth. The rough apple shape that the dish is formed into is the Big Apple, get it? The dish works okay together; it's kind of a mish-mosh of flavors and textures, which kind of makes sense because the song is a mix of optimism and risk:
It's autumn in New York that brings the promise of new love.
Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain.
Dreamers with empty hands may sigh for exotic lands;
It's autumn in New York; It's good to live it again.
This next dish was easily my favorite in all of Italy so far—"Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano" is a metaphor of the slow passage of time. Each of the cheeses used in this dish is aged for a different length—24 months, 30, 36, 40, and the "clouds" on top aged to 50 months, a soft analogy to heaven or the afterlife. The flavor is that of the best soufflé in the world; the delicate and subtle differences between the different cheeses comes together perfectly, and the poetry in the meaning of the dish is singularly brilliant. A signature dish, and one that I would trek all the way back to Modena just to enjoy again. I'm not kidding. 10/10.
The story behind this dish is a reach back to the chef's childhood—"the Crunchy Part of the Lasagna" recalls the scrabbling with siblings or friends over the one most delicious part of the entire pasta dish one's mom has just brought out of the oven. True to form, it tastes exactly like a slightly crispy, burnt piece of rich pasta. Creamy and delightful flavors. 9/10.
This dish is a story of all the chef's travels; each little piggy represents one of his stops on the journey around the world to get where he is now. From left to right:
- Marrakech spices and pumpkin; Africa
- BBQ; North America
- Cucumber; Asia
- Avocado; South America
- Apple; Modena
All have pork belly underneath. The avocado is a little underripe and so is very firm, which I don't think was intentional. 7/10.
As we get into dessert, a foie gras "ice cream bar" rolled in almonds, a.k.a. "croccantino." The idea is awesome, but initially a heavy balsamic flavor overrides everything. It eventually evens out, yielding a super-rich pre-dessert with a great crunch. 8/10.
This dish has the fun title of "Gazpacho as a pre-dessert." The dish has brilliant colors and is constructed of lots of gels—cucumber, crème fraîche, orange, etc. The serving temperature is too warm for my tastes, and interestingly the gels don't taste like the fruits they represent. Sickly-sweet and overall a great precursor for dessert. 8/10.
Another restaurant classic—"Oops! I dropped the lemon tart" comes on a faux-shattered custom plate. Lemon and citrus flavors as bright as the sun. A brilliant finish to a totally brilliant meal. 10/10.
And, for the very last portion of the meal—"Reconstruction of a Cherry" has three small bites. From left to right, chocolate-covered foie gras, cherry chocolates, and cherry macarons. 8/10. If you can stand the long waits, this is the truly the ultimate gastronomical experience.