Wander along a quiet backstreet in Modena’s old town centre and you might just stumble upon the second-best restaurant in the world. That’s right, not just in Italy, or indeed Europe, but on planet Earth! But if you do happen to stroll along that little street in a city centre that oozes history, look out for the street number as otherwise you might easily saunter on past, unsuspecting: the only clue that awaiting you beyond the door is a truly special place can be gleaned from a few unassuming plaques affixed to the exterior, an elegant marble facade and the stunning floral compositions that greet you. The name ‘Osteria Francescana’ is tastefully engraved gold on gold, so that in certain light conditions you have to peer closely in order to read it. When you walk along via Stella, look out for number twenty-two and dare to press the little gold knob of a doorbell in search of magic: as the door opens, remind yourself than you’re stepping into the world’s second-best restaurant. Having crossed the threshold, you may feel slightly bewildered and wonder if you’ve come to the right place to eat and drink, or if you’ve inadvertently stumbled into an art gallery, given the number of beautiful artworks adorning the walls. The residents of via Stella and the surrounding area are well accustomed to seeing Massimo Bottura pop out onto the street in his chef’s whites, mobile phone pressed to his ear. Yet even when he’s engrossed in conversation on the phone, often with very important people, he’ll always raise his hand in greeting when he sees you, giving you a thumbs-up and a flash of his smile. On occasion he’ll be ranting on the phone, clearly irate, making you glad you’re not on the receiving end of the call, but even then that famous smile is never far from his lips.
All around him, his staff scurry in and out of four or five different spaces that serve as storerooms, offices, the wine cellar and pantries crammed full of exquisite and precious ingredients. In via Stella, young men and women in chef’s whites bustle about, carrying trays and boxes, or occasionally you’ll see them leaning against the wall as they chat on their phones during a coffee break, or play football in the side street, via delle Rose, that gives access to the kitchen. You hear them laughing so hard, you’d kind of like to go and join them for a kick-about with the ball. Then there are days when the street is abuzz with TV cameras, and it’s like being on a film set: film troupes from every corner of the world come to interview the revered chef and if you happen to be passing by, perhaps having popped out quickly for some fresh bread, still wearing that shabby old t-shirt you use to do the chores about the house, or maybe you’re coming home from work and the make-up you immaculately applied that morning has just surrendered and slid off your face, you quicken your pace, hoping to avoid being inadvertently caught on film by one of the countless cameras. Sometimes, on the other hand, as you walk along the street you’ll run into his wife, Lara Gilmore, a New Yorker born and bred who’s now happy to call Modena home. She’s the epitome of style and kindness itself, and you find yourself asking inane questions, like who cooks at home, because when you live with a 3-Michelin starred chef, incidentally number 2 in the whole world, you can hardly get away with a plate of spaghetti with a knob of butter, or else, does even such a glamorous couple occasionally end up sweeping tell-tale crumbs off the couch at the end of the day?
For the residents of these sleepy streets in Modena, living a stone’s throw from the main square of piazza Grande with its impressive cathedral, and virtually right next to Osteria Francescana, Massimo Bottura is not the great celebrity of the day, but simply Massimo, so sometimes it’s easy to forget just how famous and brilliant he actually is. Perhaps because they run into him all the time, or perhaps because we tend to undervalue talented individuals who are part of our circle of friends and acquaintances. In any case it seems bizarre when some tourist, unwittingly murdering the Italian language, asks you for directions to Osteria Francescana and you say that’s it right there, and then he pulls out a smartphone and takes a selfie in front of the door. So you stop and think for a moment, wondering if all the neighbours of great stars end up forgetting that they’re actually the neighbours of great stars, or if that only happens to those who’re regularly greeted with a friendly wave and a smile. Another lovely thing about Massimo Bottura is that when he’s talking to you, and you scrutinize his gaze for a moment, you realise that while he’s telling you all about whatever it is, in actual fact he’s seeing it clearly in his mind’s eye. A bit like when you read a fantastic book and instead of seeing the words, your brain paints pictures for you. It’s like an unstoppable stream of creativity and invention, gushing from that man with the sparkling eyes with every beat of his heart, every word, every germ of an idea.
I’ve been in the kitchen at Osteria Francescana once: there was a big charity cooking competition and I ended up on the restaurant’s team. I realised straight away that when you’re part of Massimo’s team, no matter how small your role, losing is not an option. I confessed in a rather shaky voice that cooking wasn’t exactly one of my talents, in fact cooking and I were barely on nodding terms. Not for a split second did he panic. Looking me straight in the eye, he reassured me that it wasn’t a problem: his team would teach me how to make one dish, and one dish only, which would clinch victory for us. And so it was that one day, entering by the staff door, I came face to face with the real world of Massimo Bottura. One of his team had already been instructed and guided me step-by-step through the preparation of the dish in question, confidently assuring me that it was a walk in the park and that I could do it myself in five minutes, despite my rather lost look and furious note-scribbling. In the end the dish was a thing to die for, with a name I’ve long forgotten, and I was even sent home with the ingredients so that I could practise making it again. I made it the very next day and the look of apprehension and dread on my parents’ faces is something I shall never forget. I fired off an e-mail to Massimo that was very to the point: I can’t do this. So he asked me what I could cook and I said erbazzone, a traditional Italian vegetable pie. The evening of the competition, he gave my dish some thought for two minutes and, adding a creamed Parmigiano Reggiano sauce, totally transformed it. The result was a draw. Only as the final result was being announced did I realise that that had always been the logical outcome, but such was the enthusiasm of our team captain, we had all believed it was a serious competition. Later on I sneaked a look at the marks awarded to the individual dishes and mine was the lowest scoring. Bottura, of course, had known all along. That was three years ago and in all this time, he’s kept on smiling at me regardless.
Traduzione di Karen Inglis.
Italian version: Quando Bottura è solo il Massimo