Time, and again: An afternoon at Osteria Francescana

A moment of panic.

We had arrived in Modena with ample time to spare after an early morning wake up call in Venice, two trains and as many hours of travel later.  Wandering through the quiet, cobblestone streets of the northern Italian town, we were still ahead of schedule as we came to Osteria Francescana, saw several small parties waiting a bit anxiously outside its doors, and decided to explore once around the block instead of loitering with the others.  But after a short chat with a small business owner and a half-wrong turn, we came once more to the doors of the osteria exactly two minutes after our scheduled reservation time, only to find the armored car-style entry to be solidly shut, with all of the more well behaved clientele now safely inside.  We rang the doorbell once: no answer.  We rang again: no answer.  “O, cazzo,” my mother and I both whispered audibly to ourselves, and to each other.  Had we misread the e-mail confirmation?  Had we missed something in its contents about locked doors after opening time, now only to find ourselves before the world’s second best restaurant, unable to enter?

Finally, a slim, dark-haired man in a dark suit un-bolted the massive, metallic door and greeted us.  Behind him were several other slim, dark-haired men in dark suits.  To the left, guarding the door from inside, was a policeman.  Exhaling some relief yet absorbing a bit of claustrophobia, we were led with faint smiles to our seats.

Inside of the ashy teal room were five small tables.  We side-glanced our way into sensing who was beside us: two parties of four, one German and one seemingly English-speaking, an American mother and son, and two British lads.  All had already begun to pick at various plates, and sip at glasses of sparkling.  After a wait that seemed too long, we wondered once more whether arriving at 12.32 meant that we had missed some critical moment of entering, ordering, or other.

Our menus provided some à la carte options, and two tasting menus of ten or eleven courses.  On the upper-left hand corner of the main menu were suggestions for aperitifs: one Franciacorta, and a Champagne.  Wishing to go straight to something more interesting, we decided to forgo them, but were nonetheless surprised when not one of the slim, dark-haired men in dark suits asked us if we would like to start with something besides water to drink.  Instead, we eventually chose the ten course offerings, and opted to create our own wine pairings.  The sommelier (was the slim, dark-haired man in the dark suit taking our wine order indeed the sommelier?) seemed to have no opinion, nor to know which food we had ordered, nor to like us or himself very much.  “Simpatico questo,” my mother said with a roll of an eye and a grin after he had left with our self-selected glasses.

The meal continued, with some loosening of the nerves for everyone in the room as the well fought for liquids went down all around.  The other eaters began to chat more audibly, their camera lenses now appearing without the previous hesitation.

There were some memorable dishes.  The Homage to Normandy, an oyster that was not an oyster but rather, lamb and green apple, was excellent.  I also quite liked the re-interpretation of Spaghetti Bolognese, which was rendered even better by one waiter’s explanation, upon our question, that the dish was inspired by the chef’s vendetta for the fact that the internationally named Spaghetti Bolognese should not exist (spaghetti is not a typical pasta of the Bologna region, in which we were dining), and so he had crafted, cooked, mashed, dehydrated and then fried the bits of pasta paste to create more lasagna-like strata (lasagna indeed being a Bolognese pasta variety), before adding them atop a few bites of delicious ragù.


One dish in particular, however, was disappointing: the final plate and only dessert of the ten courses was popcorn, served five different ways.  “Popcorn..??” my mother uttered, “ma perché?”  We were hoping for an explanation; actually, we had been hoping for many explanations of the reasoning for the dishes over the course of our meal, but received only one unsolicited answer in description of Chef Massimo Bottura’s bread (most likely in promotion of his book, Bread is Gold), which, upon tasting, was really nothing special.

In doing some research before reserving, I had read that Bottura’s passion for food began when he was a child with his grandmother, and that now his inspiration mostly comes from, “…art, music, slow food and fast cars,” which all seems great in theory, but which would have been much nicer to see in practice.  Was the popcorn a childlike fetish of Bottura’s, from his younger days spent passing time with family?  I wished to make this connection, to validate the chef’s strange choice for such a closing dish in a country in which so many other great derivatives could have been made.  And what was with the art and music in the dining room, if Bottura indeed liked them so much?  There were black and white photographs of people from the war-time era, topped with glittered tears, lining the walls.  We listened to Norah Jones, followed by elevator music, followed by a repeat of Norah Jones (was the meal to have only lasted three, and not 3.5 hours?).  Perhaps the old photographs and mild tunes were to take the eaters back to an earlier time, but then why the tears, and why the modern English music?  And was the policeman standing inside the restaurant’s entrance—which we only later realized was actually made of plastic—a jest, affiliated with Bottura’s having driven too many Ferraris through the center of town, or was it just a strange, slightly foreboding figure?  I would genuinely still like to know.

A greater understanding of the seemingly out of place elements of the experience would have served to positively affirm it.  Presumably, one waits months and travels great distances to go to a place for enjoyment.  I doubt that many would go to such lengths and pay such a steep price for a meal to instead happily confirm that a renowned restaurant is really not as great as expected.

In 2008, I visited Noma for a similar culinary excursion.  The restaurant was beautifully situated on the scenic edge of a dock, with large windows that faced the waterfront.  The dishes were all locally inspired, and the experience was clear: that while eating at Noma, you are in Copenhagen.  You are having an amazing taste of Danish nature, culture and creativity.

Then what of Osteria Francescana, with its bolted door and covered windows, in restriction of movement and sight?  The restaurant describes itself as being situated, “…in the heart of medieval Modena,” as if filled with pride.  And so why the captivity?  Why the unexplained, international dishes (yes, the Caesar Salad in Bloom—a small chunk of lettuce containing 27 different ingredients—was entertaining to eat, but it was equally out of place)?  Modena itself was a small gem of mixed architectural histories, artful boutiques, and abundant culinary delights.  Luckily we got to see a glimpse of it, before and after eating.

Somewhat ironically, Bottura is also known for his social project involving opening well designed dining halls for the under privileged, and providing them with re-purposed food from local establishments, with the scope of lessening food waste, helping out communities, and bringing humanity (as the halls are complete with table service) back to serving the less fortunate.  I am still wondering whether a meal at the Refettorio in Milan would have been more satisfying than the one at hand.  And what does it mean when those who are willing to pay several hundreds of Euros per head for lunch leave the table less happy than the homeless, receiving an offering?

Money cannot buy happiness, sure, but perhaps also the Michelin guide’s qualifications for a three-starred restaurant should include ‘warmth,’ ‘joy,’ and ‘understanding.’  It is even more clear from this experience that the value of dining at a great restaurant is very rarely ever just about the food itself.  It’s about feeling welcome and at ease while there, establishing a sense of place, laughing and talking to others, connecting to the story behind what is being consumed, or very simply, getting what you need.

The only excuse for hiring an army of identical, nearly emotionless men to serve a long meal would be to keep the attention on the food, except for that something so strange as a clear troop of similar-looking males is actually quite distracting and likely notable to half of the clients in the room, who were, in our case, women.  Over the course of several hours, my mother and I managed to crack small smiles among three of the four slim, dark-haired men in dark suits, but only barely at all with the last, the supposed sommelier, whose sour face and lack of regard for our selections or our empty glasses without question turned what could be a fantastic meal to just a fine one.

In spite of it all, we were quite happy with our excursion, heightening the point that dining is about experience.  The moments between having our reservation accepted and getting to the osteria, as well as the train rides back, were as fun, and in this case more so, than the meal itself.  Only it would’ve been even nicer to have also said: the dishes were incredible, the service fantastic, and the environment worth returning to.

After arriving at home, I once more checked our e-mail confirmation from the restaurant: there was no mention of needing to arrive early.  Next time we’ll do so anyway, but it will be before the door of a different eatery.