It’s pasta and beans, but not as you know it. The most classic Italian peasant dish comes layered like a trifle. At the top of the shot glass is an air of rosemary, nestled beneath that are shapes of pasta constructed from congealed parmesan. Under that there’s a dense paste of veal and beans. You can’t help but wonder what makes the sludge rich like white miso paste. Foie gras is the answer. This version of pasta e fagoli is an exercise in archeology with every trip of your teaspoon to the bottom of the glass.
Welcome to Osteria Francescana.
Massimo Bottura’s place in Modena is not only worth the 30 minutes train trip from Bologna, it may just be worth an entire trip to Italy.
It was the highest new entrant on Restaurant Magazine’s top 50 restaurants in the world in 2009- popping in at number 13 and rising to number 6 in 2010. In a nut shell Osteria Francescana is a delight which combines high flying technique, the most traditional of ingredients and a cheeky sense of humour.
In the world of marketing, it would be categorised as a challenger brand. This is food that makes you sit up straight- and smile long after you’ve left.
We arrive at exactly 8pm on a Saturday night and wind ourselves through the first dining room bedecked with bold modern art to the slate grey and vibrant pink rear. Two glasses of prosecco and a basket of warm, house baked bread operate as ‘welcome wagons’.
Then Massimo himself comes out in his monogrammed chef’s whites to take our order. There’s an extensive a la carte, a classics tasting menu and a more elaborate 12 course construction on the menu. Our mutual dithering intrigues him. ‘Would you like to try more traditional dishes, or something more… abstract?’ he asks with a cock of his head.
‘We are in your hands…?’ we say.
‘Oh good.’ He says. ‘Leave it with me.’
And so we’re off.
Though we’ve barely touched the first, two new bread baskets are unveiled, like a spray of forrest products fresh from foraging. There’s a collection of grissini which look like kindling, then there’s a collection of rolls, some studded with fennel seeds, all cosseted together like warm stones.
Soon we’re looking down at s a ‘just born fish’.
It’s trapped in a flash fried net with the texture of a prawn crisp, topped with a mound of vinegar and herb ice cream that smacks of aged balsamic. The fish is sweet, the net salty. Add to that dimensions of cold and hot, smooth and crisp. This is a man who knows his textures.
The theatricality on the plate extends to the wait staff. Deliberately handsome young Italian men, bring out two plates and domed covers in concert. With sly looks of glee they lift the lid with a flourish and press its open mouth over your face- in the same way you’d smother some one. The dome brings with it a thwack of smoke- bread smoke we’re told. Down on the plate is a piece of raw grouper fish sliced, sashimi style that’s been lightly licked by the smoke.
Around the edge of the baby pink fish are bubbles of clear tomato jelly, like spawn, or saliva. On eating the lightly smooth, salty and smokey fish- which has a texture like a tongue I joke to The Hungry One it’s a little like kissing a smoker. He doesn’t find it that amusing.
The next course takes Osteria’s knack for creating arresting visual appeal on the plate to the next level. It’s introduced as ‘bread, butter and anchovies’. It’s a little more than that. It’s a turreted tower of crisped bread, protecting fingernail portions of fresh anchovy that have been bathed in vinegar and dunked in a puree of green parsley, among other things. If there’s any dish that’s going to get The Hungry One to eat anchovies, this is it. He finishes the whole plate.
Next is a schooling in the art of risotto. The colour of gunmetal and topped with tiny pearls of caviar – the risotto is flavoured with puréed oysters, with the smell of brine and a touch of lemongrass to ‘help clean the palette’.
Like individual snowflakes, every grain of carnoli rice is distinct, loosely snuggled to its neighbour but still resistant to a front tooth. The portion size is perfect- even this many courses in I’m still anxious to grab every last grain.
The seaside expedition continues with a toddler’s palm of black cod.
Here it’s black in name and colour, with the exterior of the fish crusted in a ‘carbon’ of vegetables and bathed in a puddle of squid ink. Beneath the salty depths are a tangle of ‘vegetable spaghetti’. It’s essentially someone having a field day with a microplane, a daikon and a carrot. As the star player, the fish flakes like the pages of a well thumbed book, its natural sweetness easily taking on the salt of the squid ink.
Massimo’s sense of humour really emerges in the next three dishes. The first two are presented on dessert spoons, as if you’d just taken a naughty, mid afternoon swipe from something tempting in the fridge. The first reveals little threads of wilted leek bound with a truffle, eggy custard that’s as smooth as running your hand down freshly shaved legs.
The second is a spoon of buffalo mozzarella and olive oil ice cream with a base of sour cherry. If only my fridge contained these.
The next is a golden gaytime of foie gras.
A cube of dense liver, stuffed with a little embryo of aged balsamic and encrusted with nuts and presented on a stick. There’s something inherently cheeky about eating something so decadent off an icey-pole stick.
The fun continues with a sweet garlic and snail soup, dressed up with ‘essential oil of chilli foam’. The garlic is sweet yet the green vegetable base to the soup feels earnest. You soon discover little crunches of hazelnut and walnuts and a slightly murky flavour courtesy of granulated coffee and black truffle. It’s a riddle in a mystery, a circle in a spire.
Next comes the pasta and beans, and then after that a ravioli of bone marrow and tongue with asparagus puree.
Then we start to wind down. A single glass of Sicilian otto davola is a perfect savoury friend to a loin of veal, the size of a fist. When hassled with a fork the threads of the veal pull apart like a weakly knitted jumper.
It’s rustic, yet incredibly refined- and comes squatting on a smooth potato puree flooded by a green vegetable puree the colour of a spring lawn.
The garden continues as a muse for the palate cleanser that follows. Simply introduced as ‘salty and sweet’, it’s shoots of alfalfa and a tangle of leaves, candied asparagus and tomato quarters topped with an ice cream of black and white bean.
It’s like purgatory for your taste buds-a middle ground which steadies you for the desserts that follow.
For me it’s a steamed meringue toped with marscapone sorbet, coffee syrup and mango gelato. Binding it together are little dots of the ‘mother’ of balsamic.
For The Hungry One it’s a little architectural model of a cherry, chocolate and coffee city, with a chocolate breadstick and soil providing a textural contrast to the softness of chocolate sponge and cherry sorbet.
Petit fours and a espresso’s with a cap of crema thick enough to finger paint with leave us perfectly content- sated, but not sick.
All in all, it’s Italian, but not as you know it. And like all successful challengers, I can’t imagine Osteria Francescana going anywhere but up.
22 Via stelle Modena, Itlay
Tel: +39 (0) 59 210 118