Mysaucepan‘s mobile rings as we are driving from Venice to Bologna.
“You mean there’s a table for two?” she shrieks with excitement, momentarily stirring my concentration as the speedo inches at 130 km per hour.
Due to a cancellation, we have a chance to confirm our wait-list booking with the 2016 Numero Uno ristorante on San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
From humble beginnings, chef Massimo Bottura has creatively honed his osteria into a world-class establishment. The city of Modena in northern Italy has reaped the spillover effects from Osteria Francescana and has since become a food mecca attracting thousands of tourists and food lovers from all over the world.
Combining molecular with traditional techniques, I am more curious than excited to discover what the fuss is all about. After all, I prefer not second guessing what’s on my plate. I also like food that looks wholesome as opposed to scientific.
Osteria Francescana, Modena, ITALY
We arrive at 11.45 am for our booking at 12 noon.
As one would expect, the entrance door is locked and being the first diners of the day, most seem eager and upbeat. I chat with four diners from the UK about the imminent dining experience and their expectations are sky high.
“We are from Edinburgh and came here just for this restaurant!” one of them enthuses.
Yet, others are happy taking photos in front of the restaurant to wild away fifteen minutes that seem like eternity.
“Buon giorno” a parade of three waiters greet us inside the restaurant to take our coats and lead us to our table.
The dining room is modest in size and the decor understated yet elegant.
Service is rather seamless, our waiter arriving with the menu and wine list within moments of us being seated.
The wine list looks more like a thick manuscript of Chopin’s waltzes with a huge selection of old world wines.
Compared to Australia, prices are extremely reasonable for one of the best fine diners in the world.
There is a fairly good selection of wines by the glass and Mysaucepan chooses a Lamiable Grand Cru Brut.
Dry with hints of pink grapefruit and lemon, this wine is well-balanced with a citrusy finish.
A 2014 Mirafiore Dolcetto D’Alba from the Piedmont region is rather floral on the nose with dark fruit, cinnamon and soft tannins on the palate.
Our waiter arrives with a generous platter of crisp grissini sticks and fresh bread rolls made with local Modena flour.
I resist the temptation of butter for two reasons.
These bread rolls are gloriously crisp on the outside with a warm and fluffy centre and the quality of extra virgin olive oil is top notch.
Selection of complementary antipasti
Bottura‘s sense of humour is on display with a plate of fish and chips or what our waiter calls ‘tempura ice-cream’.
Aula, being a fresh water fish native to the Adriatic sea, is sandwiched with delicate deep-fried crisps and topped with a quenelle of carpione ice-cream made with carp that thrives in the deep waters of Lake Garda.
There is textural and temperature contrast all in one mouthful. It’s good but it tastes even better when you try not to think of it as fish and chip.
Pastry pillows and macarons with stuff bacalao are respectively crisp and soft with a savoury twist of salted cod.
Parmesan fingers are crisp and full of cheesy aroma and flavour.
“Memories of mortadella‘ is inspired by Bottura‘s childhood when his mother made mortadella sandwiches for his school lunchbox.
Soaked in water over a few days, the mortadella is then whipped into foam then passed through a sieve for an airy mouth-feel. Paired with crunchy bits of pistachio, a streak of garlic reduction and gnocco ingrassato, a traditional Modense bread, this is Boturra‘s modern take on the traditional working man’s lunch.
Perhaps Bottura‘s noble intention was to offer the affluent and well-to-do a refined taste of the working man’s lunchbox. But between foamy mortadella and hearty slices, I opt for the latter any day let alone saving valuable foam-whipping time.
Grey and black rice with Oscietra Royal caviar
Mysaucepan chooses a grey and black rice similar to risotto topped with a dollop of Oscietra Royal caviar for her primi course.
The rice is firm and al dente though the seafood broth made with oyster puree tastes a little fishy for my liking. In denial or otherwise, Mysaucepan and I agree to disagree as she likes it for whatever good reason.
At ninety Euros, this dish is significantly more expensive than the other four primi courses all of which are priced at sixty Euros. Personally, I much rather eat Royal caviar at home with a couple of smashed boiled-eggs on toasted white bread (without the crust of course) and splash the balance on a seafood risotto in a good Venetian restaurant. I might even have some change for a Vivaldi string ensemble afterwards.
An eel swimming up the Po River
My eel swimming up the Po River is inspired by Italian folklore as explained by Bottura: “A curious eel retraces the footsteps of the Estensi dynasty from the lagoons of Comacchio to the canals of Modena”.
During the 16th century the Estensi family was cast out from the capital Ferrara and had to travel to Modena. Akin to the family’s journey, the eel swims against the current and gathers a multitude of ingredients along the way … mustard bell apples from Mantua, polenta and Amarone from Veneto and saba from rural villages.
On arrival at Modena, the eel is lacquered with saba, a thick syrup made from a reduction of Trebbiano grape juice. A tart apple extract and polenta cream complete its baggage during the voyage.
Taste-wise, the eel is sweet and delightfully tender in its saba syrup similar to a Japanese teriyaki unagi. I find the apple extract a little too tangy in balancing the eel’s sweetness. Fine black onion ash adds a smoky-bitter taste which to me is rather unnecessary. As for the polenta cream, I am not sure why it is there in the first place.
The eel is delicate with that distinctively chewy remnants which I love. It is more succulent compared to good quality Japanese unagi though the difference is marginal. For this reason, I prefer to splash sixty euros on fifteen plates of unagi at my favourite sushi joint in Sydney.
Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures
Technique, precision and timing encapsulates the five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures.
In this cheesy entree, Bottura offers Parmesan matured at five different aging periods: a demi-soufflé made from 24 month-old Parmesan, a mousse from an aged 30-month, a liquid cream from a 36-month old cheese, a crisp wafer from an aged for 40 months and a broth of Parmesan rind which has undergone an ageing process of no less than 50 months.
This dish is inventive and unique in its concept, elegant in its presentation and delicious in all its savoury goodness. The price of sixty euros reflects intricate technique and time cost.
Good as it may be, the question is whether one really needs to experience Parmesan at five different ages, textures and temperatures. I’m glad to have tasted the intricacies though it’s not necessarily something I would yearn for when I think about Parmesan.
Tagliatelle with hand cut meat ragu
Spag bol is one of my favourite pasta and this ragu eclipses all that I have ever tasted, including the awesome €6.50 ragu in Bologna which is now obviously relegated to a very good second best when price is taken into account.
The pasta is fresh and al dente, the sauce subtle yet so full of flavour. Tiny square pieces of succulent beef are firm yet yielding on the bite.
Just as we experienced in Bologna, Italy’s capital of spag bol, the sauce is minimal and pomodoro flavour subtle and restrained. The star of the show, as our waiter explains, is different cuts of beef gone into one of Italy’s iconic, yet most bastardized dishes in the world.
For me, this ragu is truly world-class, the Roger Federer of spag bols if you like.
Oxtail rib-eye, pickled vegetables, EVOO potatoes and black truffle
Main courses on the menu are all €80 each with a choice of lobster, sole or turbot with hollandaise, bollito not boiled, suckling pig and ox rib-eye.
I choose the ox rib-eye because I love beef plus EVOO potatoes and black truffle combination sounds like a marriage made in heaven.
Pickled carrot slices and beetroot wedges are presented on a piece of bone which is cleaned, literally, to the bone. Unless it is Mediterranean style beef steaks served with a wedge of lemon to balance the flavours of rosemary or thyme, I just prefer a hefty dollop of French dijon for my steaks.
Sliced carrots are chew friendly but beetroot wedges are chunky let alone crunchy to complement succulent beef, even after I’ve sliced them.
Perhaps they are meant to be an appetizer so I eat all of these pickles first, just as I would in a Japanese restaurant.
Thin black truffle shavings rest on a piece of bread. They combine beautifully with the creamy EVOO potato puree.
The ox rib-eye is sliced into 5 pieces then drizzled with what appears to be red wine jus and an olive-green reduction which tasted like matcha.
Beef flavours are good though I am puzzled as to why there is tough and chewy sinew in a piece of rib-eye steak. The taste of green ‘matcha’ is a mismatch and this whole plate seems like a motley crowd of musicians playing the same song albeit out of tune.
Suckling pig with Villa Manodori and traditional balsamic from Modena
Mysaucepan orders the suckling pig with Villa Manodori and traditional balsamic from Modena for her main course.
This plate of pork looks like a John Coburn who’s had a few too many beers.
The aged balsamic offers sweetness and acidity to the pork which could be more crisp and succulent.
More importantly, Mysaucepan is enjoying her main more than I am mine.
If Osteria Francescana has been rated the No. 1 & 2 restaurant in the world in 2016 and 2017 respectively, then I am a little underwhelmed after this lunch.
My tagliatelle ragu is unforgettable for all the right reasons and service is impeccable as it should for a restaurant of this stature.
As for flavour and value for money, Italy is a food mecca with so many wholesome restaurants without the hefty price tag. I am willing to put a wager I will find both these elements in huge doses across the remainder of our vacation.
So dear readers, are you a fan of fine dining or do you prefer dining at restaurants that serve your favourite comfort food?
Via Stella, 22
41121 Modena MO, Italy
Tel: from 10.00 am to 6.30 pm Restaurant: +39 059 223912 Office: +39 059 220286
Opening hours: Tuesday – Saturday Lunch and Dinner. Closed Sunday & Monday.
Parking: Osteria Francescana is a 2 minute walk from metered parking along Viale Vittorio Veneto.
Cover charge of €5 per person applies.