Modena masterpiece | Massimo Bottura


Champion of the avant-garde, superstar chef Massimo Bottura takes inspiration from Thelonious Monk, Picasso and Gertrude Stein, feeds Lou Reed and Cindy Sherman and reinvented osso buco. Sudi Pigott travels to Modena for a wild night at Osteria Francescana, currently the “third best restaurant in the world”

Massimo Bottura, Modena

Massimo Bottura, Modena

I first met Massimo Bottura at Madrid Fusion, the pre-eminent avant-garde international culinary event. Back then, in 2007, he was relatively unknown. I was immediately struck by his intense energy and provocative questioning, and how he considered his dishes in an artistic context way beyond the purely culinary, yet rooted in the Emilia-Romagna regional tradition of which he was contagiously proud. “For me, culture is at the heart of the Italian kitchen and the kitchen is at the heart of our culture. I like to tell stories through ingredients and traditions that inform the flavour and bring it to life,” he told me, his eyes sparkling. He sums up his culinary style as “tradition seen from 10 kilometres”. Even at the frenzied height of molecular gastronomy, Bottura was adamant “every dish had to be delicious, invite another and then another mouthful and bring a playful smile to the diner”.

Now Bottura is one of the most influential figures of the new generation of Italian chefs and chef-patron of Osteria Francescana, which has held three Michelin stars since 2011. The progressive restaurant has been listed in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants since 2010. Last year, the International Academy of Gastronomy in Paris named Bottura “the world’s best chef”. (Bottura worked at Hotel de Paris in Monaco back in 1992 when Ducasse was busy revolutionising French food.) At the same time, Italy’s L’Espresso magazine gave him their highest ever mark ever – 19.75/20, close to culinary perfection.

I caught up with Massimo soon after he re-opened Osteria Francescana after a renovation which doubled the restaurant’s size, without adding any more tables to the 28 covers.

Sudi Pigott: Most restaurateurs would see a renovation as a chance to add more covers. Why didn’t you?

Massimo Bottura: Lara [Massimo’s wife, intimately and creatively involved with the restaurant] and I wanted to have the opportunity to create an expression of our home. The extra space allows everyone to work better, especially the kitchen, yet gives our guests privacy. I also like to bring dishes to the table myself and explain them individually to guests.

SP: What was your starting point for the redecoration?

"Boiled meats… not boiled" by Paolo Terzi

“Boiled meats… not boiled” by Paolo Terzi

MB: We looked to the artisans and farmers of Emilia-Romagna to fill our larders, and turned to the region’s culinary design companies to furnish our kitchen. We collaborated with Bottega Veneta regarding the furniture and design, and with Italian lighting designer Davide Groppi to give definition to each of the three dining areas. He has created what I call a kind of natural chiaroscuro that gives warmth and light. Placing our extensive collection of contemporary artwork through the restaurant, we tried hard not to decorate, but to invite our guests to participate in the dialogues that stimulate our creative process.

SP: Can you tell me about some of the artworks that have found their way into the restaurant?

MB: Maurizio Cattelan’s Tourists, a piece that featured in the 2011 Venice Biennale and comprises three stuffed Venetian pigeons, found the perfect corner in the restaurant, along with Gavin Turk’s Trash, a bronze sculpture finished to look identical to a normal black plastic bin bag you’d see in the street. Both are from our private collection at home. These ironic objects express my playful approach to contemporary Italian cuisine and my view that often the things that make us cringe are exactly what we need to look at.

SP: In what way do you consider your approach different to most three star chefs’?

After several hours the collector, furious at the artist’s behaviour, asked when the portrait would be ready. The artist said: “Just wait a minute.” He added a small red dot to the middle of the canvas, took a step back, and said: “The portrait is finished”

MB: A story I like to tell is about an artist named Gino de Dominicis. He was asked for a portrait by a prominent collector. Gino invited the collector over to his house, where he set up an easel with a large white canvas. The collector sat for his portrait for hours while the artist had breakfast in bed, read the newspaper, went to the bathroom and got dressed. After several hours the collector, furious at the artist’s behaviour, asked when the portrait would be ready. The artist said: “Just wait a minute.” He added a small red dot to the middle of the canvas, took a step back, and said: “The portrait is finished.”

Naturally, when the collector saw this image, he looked quizzically at the artist – and Gino explained, “This is your portrait from 10 kilometres away…”

Ever since hearing that story I began to understand that what I was doing was looking at territory and tradition in the Italian kitchen from that same perspective – 10 kilometres away. Once I understood that, I allowed my cuisine and ideas to evolve and the plates to reflect my vision of territory as well as of traditional recipes. Critical distance is the key to keeping the kitchen honest, contemporary and in continual evolution.

SP: Can you give an example of a dish that expresses this?

MB: The plate “Five Temperatures and Textures of Parmigiano-Reggiano” is a perfect example. The recipe began in 1995 – when I opened Osteria Francescana – as a monochrome: three shades of white with three temperatures and textures. It has evolved with time into five elements, all made with the same product, but at different stages of maturity and from different cheese producers. This includes an “air” – fleeting, yet with rich umami intensity – handmade from the milk of a rare breed of white Modenese curled-horn cow, aged 36 months; a velvety 18-month cream accented with ricotta; and a 40-month frico, or cheese crisp. The dish is grounded in terroir, and yet it projects into the future. The evolution of ideas is what counts for me. Only then do I feel that I am contributing to the rich culinary traditions I come from.

SP: You talk about how you like to break the rules. What recent dish illustrates this?

MB: I asked myself, “What is the best part of osso buco? The sauce. What is the worst part? The overcooked rice.” Therefore, in our version, there is only sauce – actually, two sauces, divided like the ying/yang symbol in the bowl. A gold marrow and saffron reduction sits next to a rich red osso buco sauce, from which the meat has been removed after cooking. We serve risotto that has been put through hell and high water: cooked, dehydrated, and deep fried with saffron. This forever crisp risotto is poured over the double sauces.

SP: You’ve said that art, music and poetry all influence your cooking too.

"Foie gras crunch with traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena" by Per-Anders Jorgens

“Foie gras crunch with traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena” by Per-Anders Jorgens

MB: What I talk about is passion – the passion that comes from reading, from listening to music; the passion that comes from pursuing an interest in-depth. To speak about passion is to speak about emotions. Passion is expanding your knowledge, the same knowledge that inspires you to make a new dish. Or, you could simply say that often my dishes spring from my passion and my emotions.

SP: Why is music so important to you?

MB: I grew up with music, especially jazz. I have a lot of vinyl in my home – 10 square metres of records. There is nothing like the sound of a needle in a groove. It has a warmth and intimacy that CDs and MP3s have never come close to acquiring.

SP: And you have a dish named “Tribute to Thelonious Monk”. Describe it for me.

MP: Jazz is all about improvisation, yet Monk also excelled in technical execution. My homage is a crispy skin black cod served over green onion, celery, carrot and daikon “noodles” in a squid ink katsuobushi dashi broth. Visually, it’s reminiscent of a piano key.

SP: Who is the most famous and memorable musician who has dined at Osteria Francescana?

MB: We’ve had some incredible musicians. Lou Reed dined back in the summer of 2000. We talked about food and stereo speakers for hours. David Byrne brought his entire band, along with Cindy Sherman, one of my favourite contemporary artists. The most recent visitor was Michael Stipe from R.E.M.

SP: And how has art influenced your cooking?

MB: A recent dessert called “Camouflage – A Hare in the Woods” could not have been made without Gertrude Stein and Picasso. A collision of ideas and folly put a civet on the dessert menu. I am finding ever more connection between savoury and sweet flavours. So the intensely savoury civet of hare began to morph into a chocolaty, coffee-laced cream with the addition of crème royale. Instead of serving it in a pot, we created a canvas: the bottom layer is made up of cream of civet, toasted with Muscavado dark brown sugar like a crème brulee, which we then paint with layers of mineral and root powders. The final product looks like a piece of camouflage, referring to the “hare hiding in the woods”.

To cut a long story short, back in 1914 Gertrude Stein and Picasso were walking along Boulevard Raspin one evening. They encountered one of the first camouflaged military trucks. Picasso looked closely from near and afar and burst out: “We invented that! That is cubism!” If Picasso can see cubism in a military truck, then I can see a hare in the woods in a camouflage-covered civet. That’s why I am deeply in love with the kitchen. In an instant, it can take you across new continents or bring you back to your grandmother’s stovetop.

SP: What is your favourite late night snack?

MB: I do a lot of midnight concocting with my faithful companion, Lunda, our golden retriever. We usually look in the fridge for inspiration – although I don’t have much time to cook at home, I do try to keep amazing ingredients in the larder. Sometimes it is Cantabrian anchovies with Parmigiano-Reggiano butter on toast. Or a couple of slices of aged culatello ham from my friend Massimo Spigaroli – that always hits the spot.

The doorway to Osteria Francescana is a masterpiece of understatement – a typical Modenese entrance on a modest, narrow, cobbled street in this ravishingly preserved architectural gem of a city. It sets the tone for an experience that is gleefully different, refined yet playful, brilliant and madly intense.

Osteria Francescana

Osteria Francescana

I sit and stroke the Bottega Veneta sofa before proceeding into the womb-like dining room. Paintings give the impression of windows in a windowless dining area where exceptionally widely spaced tables offer privacy, even on a fully booked evening. Elegant and discreet, it could seem hushed, but there’s an incredible sound system at work. Music (mostly jazz) seems to seep through the walls and gently waft through the room. It is incredibly relaxing and focuses the mind on the food. Bottura appears from the kitchen unexpectedly, animatedly explaining dishes to each table in turn, in mesmerising detail.

It’s a thrilling journey from the onset: an oyster and an anchovy macaron convince me that all macarons should really be savoury. An almond granita dissolves to reveal coffee beans, candied bergamot, oregano, capers and sea salt, like treasures hidden in a child’s sandpit.

The first dish proper resembles a black, porous reef rock from the seaside – nature-inspired themes recur throughout the meal – but proves to be made of an ethereal powder of seaweed and squid ink, set in a pool of mussels, clams and toasted amaranth. It melts away in the mouth, vividly conveying essence of sea. Next is a deconstructed razor clam served in a “shell” of very fine pastry flavoured with seaweed; inside, a perfectly tender clam is adorned with seaweed as if just picked, fresh from the sea. Then there’s salt cod floating on a broth of green tomato with pesto that adds vivid freshness, and green olives as a gesture of sour.

"Baccalà mare nostrum" by Paolo Terzi

“Baccalà mare nostrum” by Paolo Terzi

My favourite fish dish, despite having tasted it before, is “An Eel Swimming up the Po River”: Adriatic eel lacquered in saba (grape must, the precursor of balsamic vinegar) and served with a dreamy cream of polenta, Campanine apple jelly and burned onion powder. The eel flesh is sublime, juicy and suffused with a rich, sweet, tanginess. Bounding up to the table, Massimo explains: “Eels were a great source of income for the Este family, the Dukes of Modena, who were forced to move from Ferrara to Modena in the 16th century. Each accompanying element is from the eel’s imaginary journey from the Adriatic sea to Modena, via the Po River.”

Some may find it pretentious, but I adore Massimo’s explanations of cultural history and the insights offered into family memories, alongside the immense pride he takes in his Emilia-Romagna ingredients. The next dish, “Give Me a Hen not Roasted”, deliciously epitomises this. It’s a classic Modenese dish of roasted guinea fowl, but Massimo remembers that whenever he ate it in his youth, the breast was always overcooked. To solve this problem, he cooks each part of the bird separately, with different timings and heats, and sprays the plates at the table with a distillation of roasted guinea fowl, intended to give the sensation of opening up his grandmother’s oven for Sunday lunch with the family. It’s crazy, thought-provoking, and tastes wonderful. I adored the white chocolate, garlic and rosemary “skin” combined with the offal and the gelato of toasted bread. To follow, Massimo insists we try, for contrast, a traditional regional dish of tiny tortellini finished in a copper pot at the table and served with a cream of Parmegiano Reggiano, simple, creamy and comforting.

Service throughout is light and responsive, perfectly orchestrated, and exceptionally well-informed even when Massimo is not present as narrator. There’s none of the hushed reverence or hovering often found in three star restaurants. I’d advise leaving wine recommendations in the exceptionally imaginative hands of Giuseppi Palmieri, sommelier and restaurant manager, whose list runs to 1,300+ wines and includes plenty of relatively unknown grapes: Ribolla, Frappato, Zibibbo. Palmieri shares Bottura’s “tradition in evolution” approach with some startling yet immensely pleasing pairings.

Desserts are equally whimsical and sensational, especially the “Oops Lemon Tart.” It’s the Best Lemon Tart Ever, with a sweet, sour, filling – candied within, but its fragile pastry deliberately crushed. The name of the dish recalls Massimo’s frustration as a child as he tried to make a definitive crostata with his mother, slamming his mistakes on the table. Last year he dropped a tart by mistake and decided it was better that way, and a good opportunity to poke fun at the quest for perfection and beauty. Irony, indeed: that’s precisely what he achieves at Osteria Francescana.


Osteria Francescana, Via Stella 22 41121 Modena
+ 39 059 210118;

British Airways fly three times a day from  London to Bologna, an hour by train from Modena.