When rumors emerged late last year that chef Massimo Bottura was thinking about moving his Michelin three-starred Osteria Francescana restaurant from Modena, Italy, to London, the Italian city’s mayor freaked out.
“The Osteria Francescana will stay where it is – in Modena” he declared to local media, after calling the chef himself to find out if the rumor was true.
The mayor’s panicked reaction wasn’t a surprise to locals. Bottura is to Modena like the Colosseum is to Rome.
His Osteria Francescana, which opened in 1995, is a culinary icon in this city of 180,000 people in the heart of northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, an area famed for its fast cars and balsamic vinegar. It ranks third on the current World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and receives more than 120 booking requests each day from hungry diners fighting for one of its 35 seats.
All that hype prompts an obvious question: In a country already famed for its culinary excellence, what makes this 52-year-old chef so special? To put it simply, he’s dared do what few chefs have been confident or skilled enough to pull off – reinvent classic Italian cuisine.
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Edible works of art
Dubbed a visionary chef with a monkish allure, Bottura defines his food as “traditional, but seen from 10 miles away.”
Like an alchemist, he elevates Italian food to art by pairing its essence with painting, music, philosophy and literature. The result is a mix of tradition and irreverence that touches all the senses – an experience akin to admiring works by Jackson Pollock or Mario Schifano, the master of Italian pop art.
A sample dish, called “Five stages of Parmigiano Reggiano,” transforms the King of Cheese by turning its hard surface and crumbling insides into a sublime foam.
“Compression of pasta and beans” turns a humble peasant dish into a multilayer masterpiece of cream, red chicory with bacon, bean cream, a Parmigiano crust cut thin like pasta and rosemary foam.
Then there are the dishes that’d likely shock your Italian grandmother, like “Eel swimming up the Po River” and “Snails under the vine.”
Spirituality pervades Bottura’s creations.
Dishes such as “Tribute to Thelonius Monk” are conceptual plates based on meditation, listening and tasting in the dark.
‘Since I was a kid, I was a troublemaker’
Though Bottura has achieved global fame, being innovative in the land that gave the world pizza, lasagna and pesto isn’t easy.
“For us Italian chefs, we grew up with such an important heritage, it’s so important to focus on that,” he tells CNN.
“So in another way in your mind you feel tradition is oppressive … it’s so difficult to be creative with such a heavy heritage.”
Bottura says he looks at history in a critical way – not a nostalgic one – “to bring the best from the past into the future.”
“Since I was a kid, I was a troublemaker – I was escaping from my older brother under the table in the kitchen and from down there, where my grandmother was defending me, in the meantime she was rolling pasta,” says Bottura.
“I was looking at the world from another point of view. It’s what we do in Osteria Francescana every day.
“We look at the world from another point of view and we compress all our passion, the music, art, our past, our experiences, our memories, into edible bites.”
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No stopping this skinny Italian chef
In spite of all he’s achieved, Bottura isn’t content to rest on past successes.
For Milan’s Expo, which kicks off in May, Bottura will open the Ambrosian Refectory, an initiative to feed homeless people with the event’s daily leftovers. Last year, he reflected on his 25-year career with a book called “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef,” which features 50 recipes and stories highlighting his life, motivations and cooking techniques.
The chapter titles are as offbeat as the names of his dishes, including “Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich” and “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart!”
He recently exported his passion to Istanbul with the opening of Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura, his first venture abroad. Franceschetta 58 is Bottura’s new offshoot brasserie, which can be defined as a more humble take on Osteria Francescana.
Set outside Modena’s medieval center, its goal is to introduce locals to foods from other Italian regions.
“I am a gastronomic traveler. I close my eyes and I want to understand where I am,” says Bottura.
“Cooking is about emotion, it’s about culture, it’s about love, it’s about memory.”
Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura, EATALY Istanbul, Levazım Mahhellesi Koru Sokak no. 2, Besiktas, İstanbul, Turkey; +44 207 610 9821
Osteria Francescana, Via Stella, 22, 41121 Modena MO, Italy; +39 059 22 3912
Franceschetta 58, Strada Vignolese, 58, 41124 Modena MO, Italy; +39 059 309 1008
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Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She writes about finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, Newsweek and The Guardian.