The summer evening of Saturday August 25, 2018 in Modena, Italy was to become one of the most surreal and unforgettable ones of my life. It would be the night, with a massive stroke of luck, that I, after two previous failed attempts at securing a reservation and giving up on the waitlist, clear the waitlist and dine at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana.
There probably need no real introduction to this place, but for those who may not know, it is currently ranked World’s #1, holds 3 Michelin Stars, is featured in Season 1 Episode 1 of Netflix Chef’s Table and in season 2 of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. And Chef Massimo, sometimes known as the poetic storytelling chef who has a passion for modern art, is truly an incredible culinary artist. His goal is to show you Italy; The Italy of his memories, the historic, modern and future Italy. Massimo uses local ingredients of Italy and specifically Modena, where the heritage and history of food is strong.
Tons and tons of things have been written about Massimo and his restaurant, and of course there are the aforementioned TV shows that offer incredible insight into this ground-breaking chef and his vision. This post is mainly my experience and thoughts. The one I most recommend is Chef’s Table. (NOTE: many facts and quotes I write about are from the show)
In short, an incredible experience. Each dish was balanced, complex, subtle and robust. Truly a journey with each bite. Paired with excellent wines, mostly from Italy. And a chance to meet someone I respect and look up to, Chef Massimo Bottura himself, who was so friendly, genuine and down-to-earth.
Indeed, as a food critic explains on Chef’s Table, “One of the most important elements of his food is memory […] re-interpreting the memories in a modern way” Indeed many of his dishes engage the senses and take you to a certain place, or evoke the taste/smell/textures of another type of dish or ingredient, or it took you back to a specific time. “Trying to take you back to that moment where you were once a child” – Massimo Bottura. I realized in the days since, why somehow I identified with it so much. Each of his dishes revealed more and more details about themselves with each bite. I am like that as a person, I am slow to reveal my true self or my full self to people, and am definitely more reserved upon first meeting me. But I slowly open up, just like these dishes slowly reveal each layer, each complex synergy between the ingredients but the subtle bonds between them that create the ultimate balance. Massimo does just as he says he would, “If you buy the best ingredients, you have to help the ingredients express themselves.” He respects and understands every part of the ingredient and uses them all.
Maurizio Catellan’s embalmed pigeons, which Bottura first saw in the Italian Pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale. Massimo was inspired by the artist and thought he was so cool because the art installation had the pigeons on the roof and them pooping all over other more traditional artist’s works and the walls. That artist resonated with him because, as the artist was trying to change Italian art, Massimo was trying to change Italian cooking and food. In his defiance to break through and open the very hardline traditional Italian kitchen to the modern next generation, he completely identified with the Pigeon artwork. Which according to his wife, Sara, is when art started to have value to Massimo. As such a few pigeons perch in a corner of the restaurant.
My Evening Begins
I will offer some tips based on what I researched as well as my own experience on how to do reservations/ try your luck on the waitlist later. But here is how I managed to beat the odds. A friend of my put me on the waitlist for this night for one person and encouraged me to simply venture to Modena to just give it a shot. I did just that. It would seem the star aligned, the universe had seen my dreams, heard my prayers and luck was certainly on the side, the rain even stopped and the sun came out. I arrived at the restaurant right when doors opened for its single dinner seating at 8PM. The very friendly, professional and hospitable Matre’d and head Sommelier, Giueseppe Palmieri, informed me that they were still quite full but that there could be no-shows and I was more than welcome to return in 15-20 minutes or simply sit and wait on the leather armchair in the gallery-like lobby of the restaurant. At this point I was ready for the answer to be no-chance, but I also came with that expectation and was not too worried plus I had a ton of backup options in this historic Italian city known for its culinary heritage. I watched as the lucky people who each managed to snag one of the 30-32 seats walked in, still hopeful that maybe someone wouldnt show up. But long and behold, there was a no-show, and soon Giuseppe showed me to a seat and i went into a state of shock, disbelief and awe.
The Dinner of a Lifetime
I remained in a state of shock the entire night and could barely process what was going on. Nonetheless I proceeded onwards. Osteria Francescana offers three menus. A-La-Carte which comprises of his signature dishes and some new ones (dishes ranging from 40-80 Euro each), The 10-course Festina Lente Tasting Menu at 250 Euros with 140 Euro wine pairing (a seasonal menu with some signature dishes), and finally the 11-course Everything Tasting Menu at 270 Euro with 180 Euro wine pairing (seasonal experimental dishes with signature dishes). I beat the odds, flew to Modena for one night, and was making a dream reality, as such I went all out with the Everything Tasting and wine pairing.
The evening started off with champagne, bread sticks and amuse bouche:
Tomato Pillow and Sardine:
Bread sticks, Rabbit Macaroon, and Parmesan stick (i think)
Lemon, sardine, and a few other ingredients I could not quite catch, but each bite revealed something new both in flavor and texture.
First of many wines of the night, 2016 Mosel Maximin Gunhauser Herrenberg Riesling to pair with the first two courses:
First course was one of the best of the night:
Insalata di Mare (ocean salad): Caviar, salmon roe, octopus, crab, layered in greens and seaweed.
A dish inspired by the smell, flavor, and textures of the sea. It smelled like the ocean.
Amazing. Really tasted like the ocean from the flavor to textures, a seafood feast in one single dish. Who knew one dish could have so many iterations of crunchy textures. The greens had a crunch, caviar and roe have different crunchiness but also different levels of juiciness and saltiness and the slightly sweeter roe balances out the saltier caviar. It was so layered as well and as you can see from the photos, each bite revealed a new layer for I had no idea there was octopus or crab hiding down below! The softness and sweetness of the crab paired well with the more rubbery and tender octopus.
Burnt: sardine, squid, chili lemon broth
A bit salty, but still so so good.
2nd wine, Abruzzi 2016 Fonte Canale Trebbiano d’Abruzzo
Mediterranean Sole: lemon caper, tomatoes, burnt sea water paper.
Plating inspired by Italian Artist Alberto Burri known for burning his canvases.
At first felt like it was overcooked but it wasnt actually, and just again, each component slowly revealing itself and full of textures and flavors. At first it was just sole and seawater paper, then sole and lemon and capers, then boom! in the center was the tomato, so exciting to eat! And each bite had new flavors and layers added to it revealing the true character of the dish.
a Sicily 2017 SP18 Bianco Terre Siciliane Albanello Muscat of Alexandria
Autumn in New York, Summer in Modena: green tomato gelatin, burnt tomato, tomato broth. The last bite with wine pairing was amazing. so many layers, textures, flavors, yet so balanced! Again, encapsulating the full potential of a single tomato as well as the variety of tomatoes that grow in the region.
Chef created it in a restaurant in NYC then they kept it on menu over there. And he decided to reintroduce it in Modena using seasonal Modenesi ingredients.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia 2014 Venezia Giulia IGT Ribolla Gialla from the border of Slovenia, but this grape variety produces an orange color wine due to skin of the grapes, very unique and delicious
Next was one of Massimo’s most famous classic dishes, Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different Textures and Temperatures: 24, 30, 36, 40, 50 months aged parmesan; Cream, Souffle, Foam, Cookie, mousse (i think?). Massimo really respects Parmigiano, and as he puts it, it embodies umami, “You dont feel anything, but there is everything there.” And indeed a dish inspired by locally produced Parmigiano from a place that “is about the slow passage of time, the history, the aging process.” Delicious, and indeed who knew Parmesan could have such varied and complex tastes, but this dish is quite cheesy (I mean, what would you expect), so probably not for everyone. Paired so well with the wine, which really helped bring out the varied tastes of the different aged parmigiano.
In The Countryside: Snails, Hare and Aromatic Herbs: Rabbit and pigeon filled ravioli sitting atop snails with herbs
Paired with a cocktail that you can sort of see in the corner: Italian Sambuca Anise liquor with espresso, coffee beans
Again, amazing. And I will slowly try to refrain from sounding like a broken record with the same adjectives. From the plating, to the ingredients, to the taste, you could feel that memory of being on a grassy field somewhere at some point in life.
2016 ‘Es’ Primitivo di Manduria, Manduria in Puglia Southern Italian red
Fallow Deer: lettuce with daikon, blueberry, Mango, anchovy, parsley, lemon.
One of the most surprising dishes of the night in my opinion. The deer meat itself was cooked perfectly with the sweet tangy berry sauce and mango cream, but what really surprised me was the lettuce wrapped daikon with anchovy and parsley. Slicing open the lettuce revealing thin slices of daikon layered between. The different types of crunches and other textures as well as balanced flavors of the daikon, lettuce and sauces. Everything just worked perfectly.
Summer Tart: Cream of cheese, tomato, mint, herbs,
Used as a palette cleanser instead of sherbert. Just as refreshing as sherbet.
2009 Castelnau de Suduiraut Sauternes Semillion Sauvignon Blanc Blend, Graves in Bordeaux, France
Wagyu no Wagyu: sou vide pork with horseradish and sweet onion citrus sauce like ponzu.
Was told pork is used as Italy does not have wagyu and the Modena area doesnt have beef. It was interesting. Because texture-wise they really were able to get it to feel like a fatty slice of wagyu, but it had the distinctive taste of pork.
Beltaine Italian craft beer with mainly juniper chestnuts
A la carte Tortellini in broth that I ordered. One of the best tortellini I have had.
I’M Idromiele Barricato Giorgio Poeta
Eggplant between Noto and Istanbul: Lambroussco wine rose, ricotta, pistachio, eggplant, almond sorbet. You can probably assume what adjectives I am going to use to describe this.
Picolit Marco Sara 2016 aged in oak one year
Massimo’s famous dessert: Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart.
So good, and lived up to the expectations. But admittedly this is also where the wine tasting started kicking in in full effect.
The story is that Massimo and his sous-chef, Tak, were serving the last item, a lemon tart, when the sous-chef dropped the tart on the ground. It was half on the counter and half on the ground. Tak was obviously in shock and panicked, but Massimo saw a new dish, and said they would rebuild the tart as a broken one. But it was a balancing act of intentionally creating a mess and precisely plating each component. The morale of the dish? You learn from your mistakes.
Lemon grass ice cream
Babba from Napoli rum soaked Strawberry, burnt orange , tomato.
As someone who loves smokey things from BBQ to Whiskey, the added touch of the burnt orange was stunning.
Vignola: aloe vera
Croccantino of Foie Gras with aged balsamic vinegar heart (the popsicle looking one, my favorite one)
Camouflage: Artichoke mushroom vanilla truffle
And so my wonderful and magical night came to a close. What a meal. What a night. What an experience.
The service was impeccable, friendly, and genuine. The entire staff may be in black suits and the environment may feel like an upscale art gallery, but people of all backgrounds are welcome here. I saw a diverse range of people walk in all dressed in a variety of ways and not one was treated differently than the other because of how they dressed, looked or if they were super rich or breaking the bank for this meal. One thing I do wish for was more detailed explanation on the stories and significance behind the dishes especially the signature ones, though I can also understand this would make the meal even longer and certainly the wait staff would find it tiring to repeat the lemon tart story multiple times a day.
Definitely and probably the second best meal of my life, after Noma. This was truly sensational but Noma was definitely for me a more mind-blowing and ground-breaking food experience. However, from a using pure ingredients with minimal manipulation and experimentation standpoint, Osteria Francescana definitely takes the cake.
Tips on Reservations and Waitlist
First of all, note that the restaurant accepts both cash and credit card, but if you want to tip as a courtesy (though not required or expected), it is cash only as I learned from this experience that tipping with card is illegal in Italy! Also, there is no strictly enforced dress-code, but smart casual is advisable.
Now in regards to the reservations. The restaurant opens up reservations on the first of each month at 10AM Italy time for dates on the third following month (if the first falls on a Saturday or Sunday, it will be the first Monday). Lunch at 12:30PM, and dinner at 8PM, Tuesday-Saturday. It is done online. According to the website, “In order to guarantee the server to work correctly, a filter is set to allow a limited number of accesses to the reservations page. Once this limit is reached, the filter activates putting further users on a queue. The queue position decreases once visitors leave the reservations page. Filter works independently from 10:00 AM (Italy time) reservations release.” Chances are even after clearing the queue, you will not get a successful reservation, but instead be offered to add yourself and your party to a waitlist.
To be honest, I have no idea how the waitlist process works, except that if there are cancels and space opens up they will call you. Do they go in order of who first listed? Not sure. BUT what I do recommend is that if you plan to be in Modena on the day of your waitlist, or are already in Italy, call the restaurant and check your waitlist status. Again, chances are it will still be full. However if like me, you call twice and are courteous to them both times and acknowledge that you dont have expectations and are flexible with time and date, they will start taking notice and even ask for your name and number and confirm that you are in fact serious about the waitlist. From what I read, some have cleared the morning of their intended date. I also came upon an eater.com interview with Matre’d Giuseppe who mentioned increased rates of no-show since the restaurant’s shot to fame. This is what gave me the final courage to show up at the front door and try my luck in person, I even called the afternoon of the day and they were indeed still full. When showing up in person, remember to be respectful, courteous and make it known that you dont expect to dine there but you are simply trying, make sure to note that you will cooperate and be flexible, and not be picky (ie: dine with another waitlist guest, dine with another guest, sit at a crappy corner table…etc). You dont have a right to a seat at their restaurant and they certainly dont owe you anything, even if you walked across Europe in the snow.
HOWEVER, this methodology and recommendation is really only ideal for parties of 1-2 people, as the chances decrease substantially as your party size grows. And it certainly is less of an inconvenience to their flow if you are fewer people
GOOD LUCK! I hope you too can one day experience this poetic and artistic journey of Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana in Italy.