Osteria Francescana: Modena and the world’s third best restaurant

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And so out, for dinner, to Italy. It’s a long way to go for dinner, but then this was the world’s third best restaurant, according to a dubious ranking mechanism, and the best London can do is a disappointing No5, and then also the No10. We hardly had a choice.

Equally importantly, it was an excuse for a cheeky weekend away. Myself and a couple of friends, one of them just turned 40, left families at home, packed a pack of cards and enjoyed some warmth, an extraordinary number of enormous churches and a total absence of places to be for a couple of hugely enjoyable and restful days.

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As it happens Modena is fabulously easy to get to and phenomenally straightforward to spend time in. There’s not a hill, barely even a gentle incline, for many miles around, and the fantastically strollable old town centre is small enough for getting lost to be no more than a notional possibility, and just in case there’s a great big tower in the middle of it, which you can navigate around as if attached by notional ribbons to a giant maypole.

Modena from the tower

Modena, capital of balsamic vinegar, is just 60km from Parma, capital of cured ham, with the area around both cities full of Parmesan producers. This is the global capital of aged comestibles, a place where people like their food to be simple but superb, and don’t mind if it takes a while to make it. Even ignoring Osteria Francescana we ate phenomenally well, whether gorging on tigelle (a small local flatbread which is sliced and stuffed with ham, cheese, or ham and cheese) and gnocchi fritti (a deep-fried local bread which is eaten with ham, cheese or ham and cheese – they appear to like ham and cheese), or filling our fridge with goodies from Mercato Albinelli, the old food market full of supersized fruit, impeccably fresh vegetables and the inevitable array of ham and cheese.

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On the way to Osteria Francescana, I fought an internal battle to get over the fact that I was about to spend £250 on dinner. This is a ludicrous amount to spend on filling one’s belly with food and wine, even before you factor in the travel costs. Still, I reckoned, there was a fair chance that I’d be drunk enough not to care by the time the bill arrived. And this is one of the world’s great restaurants, catering each day to an audience of no more than two dozen. In some ways – headscratchingly expensive ways – this represents good value, and compares well with, say, the opera – about which this city, birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti, knows a fair bit – or Formula One – about which this city, birthplace of Ferrari, knows really quite a lot.

I would say this about the restaurant: the chef, Massimo Bottura, is a genial figure, who popped out a couple of times to greet his diners. Though clearly he’s a quality-obsessed, dementedly focused figure at heart, he carries an air of almost casual cheerfulness. Everything about his restaurant other than he himself is, however, extremely formal. My water glass has never been more attentively topped up. Literally, every sip was followed by a waiter scurrying over, bottle in hand. This, I suppose, is the nature of a three-starred, globally-acclaimed establishment, but I’d like to see his personality reflected better front of house.

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That’s really the only complaint I could come up with. They have two set menus, one nebulously described as “experimental”, while the other “explores Emilian ingredients from a contemporary point of view”. We shrugged and told them to bring us whatever they wanted, from whichever menu they wanted to choose it from. The resulting food ranged from the stunning and superlative to the beautiful but ordinary, spending most of its time at the top end of that spectrum. Best dishes were ravioli of eel in a duck sauce with a couple of dots of rhubarb gel, a crab-based starter full of distinct micro-elements, all of them great, the plate decorated with a two-dimensional crab made from incredibly crabby crab-powder – basically crab sherbet, a product that is crying out for commercial distribution – a parmesan-heavy starter called “five ages of parmigiano reggiano” in which the cheese appears variously as souffle, foam, biscuit, sauce and, well, presumably another way as well, and a nut-encrusted lollipop of foie gras with a balsamic centre. There were a couple of less successful efforts, particularly a dessert that I’d already forgotten by the time I left the table, and a slightly weird pre-dessert of half a baby lettuce resting in raspberry sauce and scattered with petals, while the table was split on the plate, pictured above, that combined salty cured ham with crumbly sweet biscuit. Bread was excellent and constantly replenished until the last savoury dish was cleared away, and the grissini, infused with herbal olive oil, not just the best I’ve tasted but the best I can imagine.

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We had the matching wines, and as I took no notes – my companions, who both ate at the world’s second-best restaurant last year, assured me you get presented with a list at these places, before you go home (not here you don’t) – they’re largely lost to the mists of time. They were all from France and Italy but for a single, lazer-sharp dry riesling from the Mösel valley, though one course was accompanied not by wine at all, but by a cocktail based on an Italian soft drink and dotted with fronds of obscure herbs. They were good, and matched the food well, but the meal lacked a red-meat-focused main course and thus there was no killer Tuscan/Piedmontese blockbuster highlight.

It was, in essence, excellent. Whether this is the third best restaurant in the world or the fifth or the 30th is impossible to tell, but it’s without doubt exceedingly good.

They’re fighting different battles, but for me the real joy of eating in Italy is in the ludicrously cheap trattorie, with their atmosphere of joyful, generous and totally monolingual hospitality. The following day, about two minutes walk away from OF, I feasted on tigelle and cheap lambrusco and paid a pittance for the privilege. Part of the pleasure of our weekend lay in the contrast between the honed and the hearty, the simple and the sophisticated, but looking back I’m far from sure that the £250 supper was my favourite. It seems bizarre to judge a kitchen on tablecloths and water-up-toppage and the ability to use tweezers; if the purpose of food is to bring pleasure and sustenance, Modena has other establishments to rival and even rout their most famous. Massimo Bottura crafts food that delights the eye and stimulates the brain, but perhaps the heart resides elsewhere. One way or the other, however, Modena has all organs covered.

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