The Hunger | Osteria Francescana
— January 16, 2012 —
In this column, Ananda Pellerin and Neil Wissink uncover the secret pleasures of the gastronome
Mortadella foam Photography by Neil WissinkBehind the modest exterior of Via Stella 22 in Modena, Italy, sits the world famous Osteria Francescana, a restaurant which not only topped our humble list of favourite culinary experiences from last year, but was also just awarded its third Michelin star, and is number four on the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants list for 2011.
Every aspect of the experience at Francescana is a physical manifestation of chef-patron Massimo Bottura’s creative exuberance and bohemian spirit. From the modernist interior which somehow manages to teeter on the eclectic, yet comes together as a luxurious whole, to the very personal collection of artworks that Bottura has assembled over the years - each with its own story that he is happy to recount.
With only 11 tables and 28 covers, Francescana is small, and so is the number of staff, whose warmth is infectious, and who perfectly balance formality with friendliness, knowledge with wit. The menu is fiercely regional, with most-to-all of the produce sourced from no more than ten miles away, while Bottura’s technique is visionary; painterly and playfully surreal.
Our first course is mortadella foam with pistachio crumble. Unfairly maligned for its supposed lack of sophistication, this wonderfully oily sandwich meat is transformed by Bottura into a light and fluffy delicacy. The dish is also a testament to his fascination with essences. Bottura tells us: “you have to get the best ingredients, study them, think about them, caress them, try to understand them, push yourself to discover their soul. That’s why I always say you have to know everything and forget about everything.” This sentiment is at the heart of the Francescana menu, including one of our next dishes, Osso Bucco, a traditional Italian recipe which appears here as a liquid concentration of savoury veal essence and saffron infusion, served with airy, crispy rice.
"Every aspect of the experience at Francescana is a physical manifestation of chef-patron Massimo Bottura’s creative exuberance and bohemian spirit."
Following on from this, and closer to home, one of the culinary pillars of the region of Emilia-Romagna is parmesan cheese, which Bottura deconstructs with his dish of parmesan at five different ages, textures and temperatures: ranging from a cream at 24 months, to foam at 36 months, to a parmesan air aged 50 months. Then, even more intimately, and the dish that perhaps most embodies Bottura’s own essence, is his interpretation of pasta fagioli, a traditional bean and pasta soup which he presents as compressed pasta and beans, with cream of veal, radicchio, crispy pancetta and rosemary air, served in a glass. The significance lies in its three layers, each representing a chef that has inspired Bottura. The top layer is a tribute to French gastronomy and the so-known Chef of the Century Joël Robuchon, the bottom layer a tribute to El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, who pushed the boundaries of technique for the new wave of cuisine, and in the middle, holding the whole thing together, a crust of parmesan representing Bottura’s grandmother; the traditions from his family and his region. You are advised to dig deep with your spoon to experience the three layers together as a whole.
What comes next shows off Bottura’s mischievous side. One of his signature dishes, the Magnum ice cream bar comprised of foie gras with a centre of balsamic vinegar, cheerfully confronts expectations of flavour and texture. “Deconstruction and reconstruction,” you can just about hear him emphatically repeat. A dictum which could be an allusion to the smashed lemon cake ‘broken egg’ which we have for dessert, made with lemongrass ice cream, zabaglione sauce and capers.
While Bottura eagerly manipulates textures and flavours, always striving to unearth the essence of things, there is nothing overwrought or precious about the end result, which are visually enticing creations full of mirth, and roughly hewn to a disordered perfection. Perhaps most telling of the spirit behind Francescana is the manager’s description of how it differs from other restaurants. “If you consider the metaphor of the kitchen as a ship,” he tells us, “and the chef as its captain, then Francescana is a pirate ship.”
Other bites: Lucky Chip, the London Fields burger and chip van favourite, have rolled up to the recently reopened Sebright Arms in Hackney for a kitchen residency until March (and maybe longer). Ideal pub food with perfect pickles, and well-enjoyed with a pint of Bethnal Green ale - we love their Kelly LeBrock and El Chapo burgers. And in more van food news, the Pitt Cue Co. BBQ van of Southbank fame have set up a small space in Soho – it seats 30 and first come, first served, so get ready to queue for their top-rated pulled pork.
Ananda and Neil visited Osteria Francescana on Wednesday, 29 September at 7pm.
Text by Ananda Pellerin
Ananda Pellerin is a London-based writer and Neil Wissink is a visual artist also based in London. More from The Hunger here, and contact The Hunger here.