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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Osteria Francescana (Modena)

(Visited October 2012)

A pity that we could only find a spot at this uber-celebrated temple of Italian cuisine at a time that was only a few hours before the return flight to Scotland. A trip just for them, a maximum of three hours at Osteria Francescana: will they vanquish the natural fear of disappointment that always looms when stratospheric expectations are set? Bottura is not allowed to go wrong...

Let's see. Luggage in hand, the first customers of the day, we ring at the bell of the shut door with some trepidation, a few minutes before the opening time. A rule abiding non-Italian couple (a metaphor there?) standing in the vicinities resolves to follows us.

When, three hours later, we come out of the same door, we definitely have learned a lot about modern Italian cuisine.

We ordered the regulation classics menu at 140 euro that Chef Bottura himself offers to twist and 'integrate', quite substantially as it happens, according to your taste. It may seem common hospitality, but as you may have experienced yourselves there's more than one multistarred venue where instead rigidity reigns supreme. And here in the Osteria they do not care a jot about us taking photos of the food, their food is not too precious (hear, Alajmo?). Or about how you are dressed. It's good to see that the name Osteria is not  a mere gimmick, and that some of that spirit survives even in the unavoidable three star formalism.

Here are the dishes that you must have seen photographed and described one thousand times on the internet. Please bear it the 1001th time.


We learned, for example, how full avant-garde with eyes on the future can be rooted in terroir and tradition as firmly as an oak. We learned how Japanese ideas can brush shoulders with our Italian tradition in a subtle, classy way, with, light, clear, harmonious flavours, as in the first three dishes, Aulla tempura with frozen carpione, the Eel glazed with saba ('cooked must') and onion ashes; and the Homage to Thelonius Monk, justly revered as one of the greatest cod lovers in history. He would have loved this sublimely cooked one.

We didn't quite learn, but we had a glamorous revision lesson on how modern technique can put to the service of tradition, as in the bollito non-bollito (head, cheek, tail, belly, trotter and cotechino), evoking, if you are Italian, many memories and beating them all. And even better, perhaps, in the compressione di pasta, the literally multilayered flavours taking you in new sensorial territory, Royale de de foie gras combined with humble beans.

The 'little finger' tortellini (requested by Man) are more solidly traditional, but even here there's that special touch, the lightest of creams (panna d'affioramento) that suddenly makes many controversies on whether cream should be used in tortellini look silly: this is the solution, stupid! (best tortellini, ever, for the record - and Man has been raised on them in Bologna).

And the foie gras lollipop, one of the earliest Bottura creations, must be in the Hall of Fame of modern cuisine: it's hard to top the aged balsamic and foie combination, and the texture contrast.

Think pink is a pre-dessrt that was meant to please women and indeed it seemed to strike Woman more than Man, so Bottura got it right... 

The dessert, called `Oops I dropped the crostata' is simply beautiful, it really is one of the dishes that most compellingly provoke comparisons with visual arts, and has Man looking transfixed at it. It is very well made, with an airy crust, it is good and pleasant, yet Woman doesn't eat with her eyes alone... terms of flavour, we'd humbly say that it doesn't feel at the pinnacle of the art of patisserie in the same way as the rest of the meal felt at the pinnacle of the art of cooking.

So, while we leave the Osteria in a rush (a mere three hours didn't allow us to eat in a really relaxed way, plan near four hours from entering to exiting if you want to be in total relax), let us mention the service. We've seen complaints that it's stiff and sullen, but for us it was perfect. They graciously accommodated what they probably thought were some idiotic remarks by us on the wine, taking actions they thought unnecessary, and they were efficient, unpompous, relaxed. Some of them even almost smiled sometimes! The great man himself is part of the service as he goes around the tables to discuss and advise on the menu, and he does it smoothly. If he became tired of being a great chef, he might consider a career in the front room :) And we were impressed that he was on duty on a Monday lunch the day after his (50th) birthday.

Prices must the be some of the kindest in the world for a three star restaurant, and with this generosity.

There is something humble and low key in this glorious Osteria that we find deeply charming. It's hard to imagine Italian cuisine coming better than this. There is a unique combination of creativity and clarity of conception, perfection in execution, intelligent use of technique, and rootedness in the terroir, that make Francescana unbeatable in this domain.Returning to try other dishes is not merely a desire, it is essential.


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