Massimo Bottura is not only one of my favorite chefs in the entire world, he is also one of my favorite people. He cooks for the palate, the stomach, the heart and the mind. He writes poetry through food and nourishes the soul as well as the body. When I was planning this trip, there were two things that I absolutely had to do. One was to go to the island of Elba, where the Sconzo name came from before it emigrated to Sicily in 1790. The other was to bring my son to Osteria Francescana.
I first visited Osteria Francescana and met chef Massimo Bottura back in 2003, when I brought my son, Andrew, there on his one-to-one father son heritage trip. Our meal was the culinary highlight of a fabulous culinary trip. At the time, Osteria Francescana was just developing a reputation, which has since justifiably¹ blossomed. A second visit last year blew me away. Given my youngest son’s already keen interest in food, I knew that I had to take him there.
While it is far from necessary for Massimo to be in the dining room for the diner to enjoy the food of Osteria Francescana, his presence there adds extra magic. He has a way of introducing his dishes with little stories that is infectious. Food ultimately must be delicious without embellishment, but when creativity, beauty and personality are present in addition – and they are maximized when Massimo introduces a dish – there is no finer experience for me.
This dinner was everything I hoped that it would be. Seeing the delight on my son’s face as he soaked up everything about the experience was simply priceless for me. For me, this dinner was the ultimate highlight of a trip with so many highlights. What makes it even more special for me, is that my son also identifies this dinner as the culinary highlight of his trip. Posted below are photos and a video from the dinner. I have kept commentary to a minimum and other than just a little added background and description, I will mostly let the dishes speak for themselves.
I started with a little Champagne.The meal started with a refreshing granita that somehow incorporated what seemed like the entire flavor palate of Sicily with different flavors surfacing from every spoonful and each working with the ones coming before and after. From almond milk to capers to coffee to lemon to olive oil to bergamot to fennel and more, this was a brilliant start to our meal. Osteria Francescana’s selection of breads defies one to stop eating them. The grissini are no different. They are welcome, but by no means necessary. Bottura and his team are masters of making dishes that playfully reflect nature. Thus was the case with this dish. The clam’s crisp and tasty shell was made from dried seaweed and the filling from razor clam, scallop, squid, mussels, seaweeds and more. It held and gave forth the essence of the sea. The clam and “his friends” was washed down by this deeply delicious razor clam broth. I could have eaten this dish alone twenty times over. This dish took many of the same flavors that were in the granita and made something totally different from them. The result was equally alluring and delicious. The pasta was cooked in water distilled from grilled calamari. The depth of flavor was intense and wonderfully pleasurable. Massimo introduced this by saying that the fish had been compressed in a sous vide bag to achieve a texture similar to the “white meat” of chicken or rabbit while maintaing the flavor of the fish itself. He played the surf and turf angle up by pairing the “white meat” with a rabbit cacciatore sauce as well as a sauce made from crustaceans. The result was incredible flavor along with incredible texture. The fish skin was simply perfect – crisp and flavorful. My son didn’t think he would ever enjoy fish skin until he tasted and ate this.
I’ve already mentioned Massimo Bottura’s sense of fun and whimsy, but it was never more apparent than with the dish introduced in the above video.The dish showcases the essence of wonderful Modenese white cow parmigiano cheese flavor in a number of different textures. To this, Bottura added for us the product of a new toy that he is playing with. Through some judicious chemistry and the incredible Parmigiano product from the cooperative in the Modenese hill town of Rosola adjacent to Zocca, he created a literal Parmigiano cloud. As Massimo said in the video, “it isn’t smoke.” His cloud captures the amazing aroma of the cheese and added it to the already deep flavors on the plate in yet another texture. With this dish, both my son and I were on Cloud 9. Our wine moved in another direction with this delicious 13% alcohol Nero d’Avola. Our meal also moved in another direction. Massimo and his kitchen staff of Davide Di Fabio, Yoji Tokuyoshi, Kondo Takahiko and others took it upon themselves to prepare this menu for my son and I. I had asked for a mix of their creative Modernist menu as well as some from their “classic” menu based on regional specialties. This tagliatelle with ragu was a simply perfect rendition of this true classic. The ragu was absolutely greaseless, but lacked nothing in terms of flavor. It became my new benchmark for this dish. Massimo also enjoys his puzzles. This dish was entitled, “Roasted guinea fowl that is not roasted.” The guinea fowl had been cooked sous vide to achieve the textural qualities Bottura was aiming for., but the “roasted” flavor was provided with the application of a distillate of roasted bones via the pump atomizer seen in the upper right corner of the above photo. This was fun and tasty, but not quite as satisfying as the knockout dishes that preceded it. We were also beginning to get quite full. This little snack served as we were finishing our guinea fowl served as a wonderful bridge from savory to dessert. Still more savory than sweet, our road to dessert was opened. The path towards dessert continued with this pre-dessert of a frozen, slightly sweet pesto Genovese. It was light, cleansing and quite tasty. The path towards dessert continued, but not with abandon. I was poured this white sparkler from Franciacorte, proving that Champagnes and Champagne like wines are the universal pairing wines. Even the main dessert hedged itself as a dessert. Not too sweet, with meringues of szechuan peppercorn surrounding a chestnut cream and aromatic herbs, the dessert was incredibly light and delicious. The flavors were subtle, but worked extremely well with the texture of this marvelous plate. It melted in our mouths, disappearing like the wisp of a cloud, leaving nothing but flavor in its wake. This was one of the very best dishes of an extraordinary meal. Our final dish continued the savory dessert theme. Make no mistake, these were desserts, but they were quite sophisticated, never succumbing to the easy lure of too much sugar. These were desserts about flavor and lightness. They were refreshing and quite welcome at this point of the meal. We were stuffed, but these were the perfect antidotes, leaving us satisfied, but not sick. The final touch, the petits fours were a tad more indulgent to the sweet tooth, but even these were made with sweet restraint. My favorites were the chocolate-curry truffle at 7 o’clock and the sweet and sour raspberry marshmallow at 3 o’clock.
Sadly, all great evenings come to an end. This one was one of the most special of my life. Sharing this meal and conversation with my son, watching and listening to him grow before my eyes meant so much for both of us. It is evenings like this that make fine dining so enjoyable for me and keep me coming back for more. It is to help remember evenings like this that I photograph and write about them. Thank you, Massimo Bottura and all your staff, once again, for an evening that neither a son of mine nor I will ever forget. Thank you for flying us into the clouds!
¹Osteria Francescana has developed a great reputation as evidenced by its continued placement for the past three years in the top 10 of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, however, as with just about any restaurant, the sentiment is not universal. This is one restaurant that for whatever reasons, my good friends Bonjwing Lee (aka The Ulterior Epicure) and Steve Plotnicki (Opinionated About) have had disparate experiences. This goes to show that no place can please everyone. Osteria Francescana has become one of my absolute favorite restaurants ever.