If you don't know Massimo Bottura, or his restaurant Osteria Francescana (OF to Scallionpancake), then you probably either just woke up from a coma and asked who won the 1986 Super Bowl, or you aren't a foodie. If you aren't a foodie, you aren't going to understand why anyone would pay €270 to eat lunch in Modena, Italy, and we get that. If you get super drunk at an Olive Garden and pretend you were at OF with us, that will cost you a lot less.
We've had our eye on OF for a few years now. I actually visited Modena last year with my friends Vishnu and Ravi, but in order to save my marriage I decided to steer us to Bottura's sister restaurant, the less fancy Franceschetta 58. We all loved it, and you can read about that experience here. In April, I decided I needed to take Yvonne to Italy, because Italy has a special place in my heart that I felt she needed to understand. While in college I studied abroad in Florence and fell in love with the country, its culture, and, most importantly, its food. If we were going to Italy, then we needed to go to its best restaurant, and that, to most, is Osteria Francescana.
Like any of the top restaurants in the world, it takes significant planning to score a reservation unless you are crowned prince of of an Arab country or you have a TV show (see our Noma post to see what we what to do to get in there!). OF releases reservations a month at a time, three months in advance of month of service, and they go fast--as in, "don't bother if it's five minutes after they have been released" fast. I had to wake up at 4:00am Eastern time to get in an epic Battle of the Anghiari style fight with Italian computer servers on our couch, which, ultimately, I won. I ran back upstairs and woke up Yvonne to tell her that we were going to Modena. She was happy deep inside, but outwardly she expressed that the news could have waited until dawn.
Since we made the reservation, OF was yet again voted #1 restaurant in the world for 2018, up from #2 in 2017. The restaurant has been ranked in the top 10 since 2010 and was #1 in 2016. It has three Michelin Stars, and pretty much every other award a chef or restaurant could achieve. Bottura was the first chef featured on Netflix's Chef's Table, has been on Ugly Delicious, Master of None, Somebody Feed Phil, and a whole slew of other shows. Bottura is arguably the world's most famous chef at a time when there are a lot of celebrity chefs.
Unlike most top restaurants in the world, OF gives you a few options in what you eat. You can do a la carte, a 10 course tasting menu (Festina Lente), or a 12 course tasting menu which includes the Bottura's greatest hits and the newest additions from the kitchen (Tutto). We chose the 12 course tasting menu, which i'm sure 98% of all guests choose because OF isn't a type of restaurant you go back to that often.
The first thing they brought out was traditional Italian bread, which had no seasoning added at all. A very bland start to the meal that we were disappointed in. We have since learned (thanks to our reader & pod listener Andrea--hey, Andrea!) that Italian bread was once baked without salt due to a 16th century Pope who put an extremely high tax on salt, which meant that hardly anyone was able to use salt in their cooking for a time. Now, baking bread without salt is a tradition and the preferred style for many Italians.
Fish & Chips
A delicious bite and play on fish and chips. A very crispy cracker with a small fish inside made for a great first bite. The dollop on top was carpione (fish) ice cream with fresh herbs.
A few small bites that we couldn't understand exactly what we were because the servers talked to us so fast we couldn't figure it out. They were all good, but nothing really to write home about.
They brought these out as if to say, okay we gave you the old traditional shitty bread so now we're going to give you something good. These breadsticks were excellent, made with olive oil and parmesan. Crunchy and flavorful.
insalata di mare
The first real dish was OF play on a traditional seafood salad. This is an evolution of Bottura's famous dish "Caesar in Bloom," and contains 20 different elements of the sea. The lettuce was crispy with many several types of seafood hidden in between, as if they were hiding from us in coral. The crispy chips added a nice texture to this course.
This striking dish was a cuttlefish cracker that you dip in a squid ink sauce. This dish was meant to represent sometimes the best parts of food, the burnt edges, ends, and other dodgy parts of food. Was it cheesy to have "burnt" written on the cracker? We think so. Also, not a lot of burnt umami flavor, and rather messy, to boot. This one was a borderline miss for us.
The sole is cooked in parchment paper and then finished with a sea water paper to give you the fragrance and taste of the sea as you eat the sole. It also visually represents the parchment that the fish was cooked in. The sole was perfectly cooked and was a winner for me, but Yvonne thought it was a so-so dish.
summer in modena, Autumn in New York
This dish is named after Billie Holiday's classic song. The dish showcases the fresh ingredients from the local Modena market. This summer the focus was tomato, and the team made basically the best tomato soup you've ever tasted.
Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano
in different textures and temperatures
This is the dish everyone comes for, and it doesn't disappoint. This dish only contains parmesan and time, and truly brings out the best flavors parmesan has to offer. Imagine the best tasting strong cheese, but without that bitter taste you can sometimes get. One of the best dishes we've ever eaten.
In the countryside: snails, hare and aromatic herbs
This was our only "pasta" dish of the night, which included hare ravioli and snails in a forest of greens. We both loved this one for the earthiness and tenderness of the dish, as well as the delicious green sauce.
The steak of deer is covered in a blueberry sauce added a nice sour/sweetness to the salty deer. The Swiss chard with peach slices inside was made to look like a tree, and added a nice crunch to the dish. There was even a dollop of mango sauce, because who doesn't love mango? This dish was an A+ winner.
The freshest bite of the night. As we're finishing up the deer this tart is brought out with summer fruits from the market. What a refreshing bite to compliment the deer!
wagyu not wagyu
This was the true miss of the night for me. This was pork belly that was made to look like wagyu, which, when I ate it, just made me wish I was eating actual wagyu. This legitimately did not taste good.
Pepper and strawberry
This was a beautiful bridge from the savory to sweet courses. The pepper provided a nice balance with the sweet strawberry.
Opps! i dropped the lemon tart
The other classic of OF. The story goes that this dish was conceived when a chef actually dropped a tart on the floor during service. Yvonne and I have had a large debate on whether this dish is worth staying on the menu, other than for nostalgia. I say yes, because it's the best lemon tart I've eaten, and I don't normally like lemon desserts.
As we're finishing up the lemon tart, the servers bring us this play on a rum baba, which is a traditional French dessert. Man was this good. The cake is drenched in strawberry juice, making it moist and soft. The ricotta is covered with bell peppers and then shaved with burnt orange on top. This was our favorite dessert.
Croccantino of Foie Gras
covered with Noto almonds and Piedmont hazelnuts with Villa Manodori Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
This is another famous OF dish, with the foie gras lollipop covered in Sicilian almonds and dolloped in 35 year old balsamic vinegar. Foie gras is admittedly not my favorite, but I get why people like it, and the little bite did have an excellent crunch with the foie gras aftertaste.
Bottura seems to be obsessed with camouflage. He loves to have something hiding in plain site. This appeared like a chocolate, but was much more complex. The interior is made with civet, which is reduced hare's bones and blood. We enjoyed this inventive bite.
OF has a wine pairing, but we didn't do that because who can afford a wine pairing? I decided to get a variety of homemade soft drinks, which were excellent. Our favorite was an orange & coffee soda made with actual coffee beans. It was so crisp, refreshing, and energizing. One of the best homemade sodas we have ever had.
The interior, at least the room we sat in, was modern, yet forgettable. It was lined with drawings of birds and had no windows. Compared to other top restaurants we've been to, where there are open floor plans with views of the kitchen and the other guests, our table at Osteria Francescana felt isolated. We could only see the two other tables in our room and that was it. When you go to places like OF, you are desperate to see how the magic happens, what's going on around you, how the waiters interact with the chefs, etc. We didn't get any of this, and that felt dated. We felt cheated to only get the food versus more of a full experience that we are used to at similar restaurants. This is a recipe for an underwhelming experience. After all, we've all seen the Chef's Table, so we've all seen the fun that's going on back there. It's disappointing when that's hidden from you.
The room is also extremely quiet, with Frank Sinatra whispering lyrics to you from the ceiling. Bottura is such a fun, brilliant personality, it's strange his restaurant does not exude the same enthusiasm. We hypothesized the restaurant could be set up in small rooms because the building cannot be structurally opened up, or that Bottura wants there to be a striking contrast from his modern, exciting food to the traditional, white tableclothed dining room. No matter what the reason, the atmosphere was disappointing to us. In fact, of all the best restaurants in the world we've been to, this one was probably the least inviting.
The service was stuffy yet exceptional. Whenever we needed anything we were always attended to quickly. Our main problem with the service was that the servers explained the dishes so fast that we couldn't pick up on a lot of the details. Thank god for the internet to help us out on that. The highlight of the meal was when Bottura himself came and spoke to each table. He could not have been nicer, and spent at least two minutes at each table asking about where we were from. I feel we had a real bonding moment over how Sean Brock from Husk, smoked up Modena with his BBQ a few months ago. He also took pictures with every table. No other chef has ever been this nice and courteous to the entire restaurant, and that was truly special.
Where are all the pugs in Europe?; Where is Jason's hand going in this Massimo Bottura picture?; Millennials like open concept spaces, please don't trap us in a small room with actual grown ups; That trash bag under the pigeon sculpture is an art piece, not an actual trash bag. Sorry Yvonne; Non-alcoholic pairings > wine pairings.
Rating: 5 out of 5 with 2 Michigan Pugs
Maybe it was that we had just been to Noma a week prior, or that we were there on a disappointing menu day, but, to us, OF didn't live up to the hype. This is very nit-picky, because Osteria Francescana is still an amazing restaurant worth making a trip to, but when you are ranked as the best restaurant in the world we expected something incredibly, unbelievably amazing. We did get "great," but compared to our expectations this was a disappointment.