emilia romagna · Modena

The lunch of ruin

I will never forget the date, Thursday 27th October. That was the day that I had the best meal of my life. No exaggeration. The best meal. Of. My. Life.

I was lucky enough to get a table at Osteria Francescana, a tiny 12 seater restaurant in the town of Modena, Emilia Romagna. It started last Christmas when I was given the cookbook of Massimo Bottura: Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef. It’s a book of epic physical size, and ideas. Massimo is somewhat a pioneer of modern Italian cooking.

It took several months to secure a table at the beginning of the year. At this point, Osteria Francescana was voted 3rd best restaurant in the world. Pretty high credentials! The menu prices were eye wateringly expensive, but my friend and I couldn’t get it out of our mind. On the 1st of every month, at 9am, the booking opens for the next 3 months. So month after month we would sit refreshing browsers trying to get a seat, but to no avail. That is, until one fateful 1st of July morning at 9.11am where I finally got in! Shell shocked I panicked…what to do next?! I hurriedly clicked on all the dates. Weekends, Fridays, nothing, all sold out. Sold out?! Already?! Then I clicked on a random Thursday. Result! A lunch table was available. Without another thought I booked it for 2 people and was finally able to breathe again. Relief. I’d done it!

Now to start saving, and devour every piece of Massimo related TV show and article going. I highly recommend the first episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix which stars Massimo so that you can understand a little bit more about the genius behind the food.

As the date grew closer, I must admit, I did have my doubts. Would it be worth it? Would I come away hungry? Unsatisfied? But after speaking to jealous friends (I obviously have the right kind of foodie friends), they all said I’d be mad not to go, especially since by now, the Osteria had been voted number one in the world. Yes, number one restaurant. In. The. World. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. It wasn’t just a 3 Michelin star restaurant I’d be dining in. It was the best restaurant in the world. How could I pass up on this opportunity? Even if it meant instant noodles for the next few months?!

And so the day arrived. We managed to be late, but email communications with the restaurant had been friendly and efficient in the past – they dealt with my specific dietary requirements without even batting an eyelid – so I let them know we were going to be a little tardy which was no problem. Upon arrival into the small, unassuming Modenese street, only a gold plaque outside signalled we had found our destination. We entered and our coats were taken before we were shown to our seats in the tiny restaurant. The other clientele were a group of 4 smartly dressed young-ish gentlemen, and 3 other couples, one older than us, and 2 around the same age, one had travelled from Australia just for this meal!

The waiting staff were efficient and courteous. I’ve seen negative reviews about them, but I couldn’t fault them. We decided on the tasting menu, I mean why not. If you’re going to do it, then best do it properly! It was 11 courses, including some of Massimo’s signature dishes that I’d been excited to try.

Then the food started to arrive…

Oh the food.

I wish I could have taken a photo of my friend’s face each time he took a bite! We discussed how pretentious we would sound when we came back to England and had to describe the meal, but really honestly and truly, each bite was a completely different experience. Each dish was exquisitely composed and executed. I doubt I’ll ever taste anything so incredible again. Which makes me sad. Maybe starting off my fine dining experience at the very top of the restaurant game wasn’t such a good idea!

So, the food. Where to start?!

In total, including the coffee and sweets served with them, we had about 15 courses. Each expertly paired with a perfectly complementing drink. The waiting staff would bring out first the drink and explain it, and then the dish, with further explanation so you felt like you knew each course intimately. For a fan girl like me, I was also able to tell my friend other anecdotes about the origin or inspiration for some of his more famous dishes.

Here are the courses in their entirety. I won’t bore you/spoil the surprise by describing them all, only my favourites.

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The dish I was looking forward to the most, and the one that definitely didn’t disappoint was Five ages of Parmigiano Regiano in different textures and temperatures.

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Five ages of Parmigiano Regiano in different textures and temperatures

As a self-confessed cheese addict, this dish seemed like heaven to me. Parmigiano Regiano cheese, matured to different ages, and prepared in different ways. A foam, a cream, a crunchy galette. Incredible. It was as good as infinitely better than all the hype. I’m no food critic, so my words are far from eloquent, but I don’t think my mouth has watered so much eating a dish.

The prize for most unexpected dish goes to the Caesar salad in bloom.

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Caesar salad in bloom

Salads don’t really excite me very much. But this one was a Massimo salad. Made from 27 different ingredients, it really was a party on my taste buds. You could not anticipate what you’d be tasting next bite. I would not be able to name all the flavours that simple leaf contained, but it was incredible.

I cannot name a bad dish, or one that I didn’t enjoy. Even the simple breads served were beautifully done, warm, served with a delicious olive oil (although I have to admit, I’ve been spoiled by various incredible Italian olive oils of late, so this Tuscan one was nice but not the best I’ve ever tasted)

“Sarah, this olive oil is amazing, I can’t believe how good it tastes”

“That’s just how olive oil is supposed to taste”

We are seriously hard done by with the olive oil they try to sell us in English supermarkets!

I must admit, by maybe course 6 I was feeling a little stuffed. The portions are only small, but some are pretty rich. I went to the loo at this point for a little walk (always got to check out the toilets in fancy places!) and they were exquisite, as expected, except this little man was staring at me from under the sink as I “spent a penny”.

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A little disconcerting, him watching me pee!

And so, after 3 hours, it was all over. Massimo wasn’t there that day unfortunately, as I’d heard he comes out to speak to the diners if he is and I was hoping to get my cookbook signed by him and a selfie, but it wasn’t to be.

So we left, but lingered on the way out, hovering by the door well after it had closed, basking in the restaurant’s magnificence, trying to just process what had gone on inside that tiny building.

We had just eaten in the best restaurant in the world. And I don’t think either of us will ever forget it.

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Not wanting to leave, I held onto the door frame until I was dragged away 😉

4 thoughts on “The lunch of ruin

  1. Hi Sarah. Great article, I really enjoyed it. I also dined at “the best restaurant in the world” in 2009. At that time it was elBulli, on the Cala Montjoi, Roses, Spain (chef Ferran Adria). My booking experience was a little different to yours, but still a competitve process. Bookings open just 3 days of the year, usually over a weekend in October via email only, for the following summer, and they receive around a million requests from all over the world for the potential 8,000 sittings over the 6 month open season. I don’t know how, but like you, I also “lucked out”. Being from Sydney, Australia, I’m not sure if that was a help or a hindrance.

    Ferra Adria is one of the more famous pioneers of “molecular gastronomy”, along with Heston Blumenthal, although he doesn’t like to see his cooking defined in that way, preferring the term “deconstructivist” to describe his style of cooking (never argue with a Catalan). I see some similarities in the dishes you present in your article, particularly the Five Ages of Parmigiano Regiano, with its foam. Whilst each course was a masterpiece, 36 courses later, and the incredible food was playing havoc with my digestive system. elBulli in now closed and Ferran Adria has turned his attention and substantive talents to other projects. I guess he’s earned his right to be in a position to do this.

    I live in Italy now. Not so close to Modena, but I hope one day to also get to experience Osteria Francescana, and the food of Massimo Bottura as you did. By the way, have you ever heard of Antonino Cannavacciuolo and the Villa Crespi? They are next on my list of must-do dining experiences (www.villacrespi.it/en). Along with the food (Cannavacciuolo is a huge bear of a man and a 2 star Michelin chef), the Villa Crespi is an incredible neo-Moorish palace on magnificent grounds on Lake Orta. A real fantasy land and slice of heaven on earth. Maybe you’d like to go there too?

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    1. Hi Rick, thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the post. 36 courses sounds epic! Not sure I could handle that!
      Villa Crespi looks pretty incredible….Once my bank balance has recovered from Osteria Francesca I’ll look into it 🙂 Let me know how it is if you end up going.

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