September 30, 2021

A 12-hour cross-border drive is all that stands between me and Osteria Francescana. And the waves of indoor dining restrictions. My first attempt was botched in April 2019 due to a forsaken relationship, while my second crack last year in November got cancelled due to border closures. Fortunately, third time’s a charm and fate has smiled upon me.

We were told to arrive promptly at 12:30 p.m. to allow the kitchen to create the full experience. But an overloaded trailer on the highway flipped on its side, causing a massive scene on the exit route. To make up for the delay, we ended up marching down Via Stella as fast as my mules can take me. “We’re expecting you,” says a familiar voice with a thick Italian accent. “Is that Massimo?” I whisper to my partner as we are whisked away to our table in the middle of the pastoral dining room. It is rhetorical, and I am more nervous than sanguine. Massimo Bottura’s brief appearance leaves me a bit starstruck.

Five tables are set on the day of my visit; a total of 12 diners. It takes a few courses and some eavesdropping to learn that we are in the fine company of a table of Brazilians and Portuguese, a chef, a ravishing couple celebrating a birthday and a soft-spoken duo from Britain. Uniformed waiters work the tables vigorously with the precision of aerial acrobats, clearing plates and bowls the moment you put down your cutlery. The dining room is pretty much a theatre stage; hushed, austere room, starched table linen and purposeful lighting to create accents across the dining tables. This Spartanism serves as a lead-in for one of the most anticipated meals in my life.

We begin with grissini sticks and a rather feeble attempt by the staff to explain the tasting menu that comprises a jarring list of dishes, names and years in an incongruous structure. After a little bit of investigation and prompting by the English version of the menu (accessible via a QR code), the menu entitled “With a Little Help From My Friends” pays tribute to 15 Italian chefs and their 16 plates of food. The degustation menu, inspired by the originals devised between 1960 and 2020, is somewhat cryptic beyond the full disclosure of cooking references. Gone are the exalted dishes that have defined Bottura’s culinary reign: “Five Ages of Parmesan,” “The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne” and “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart.” Instead, an entirely new menu born out of lockdown emerges.  

The first pour from the wine pairing, a golden hay coloured Lo Triolet Marco Martin creeps into my veins slowly, relaxing my shoulders. A trio of amuse bouche further lightens the mood: a crispy morsel sits on the back of a stencilled prawn, the signature ‘Ciao’ is a ceviche of seabass quite reminiscent of the uni crab tostada that I enjoyed as part of the Gucci Osteria pop-up two years ago, and finally a tiny mug of piping hot soup that’s a riff on panzanella (bread soaked in tomato water). Bottura is devoted, at least in the abstract, to honouring the exquisite produce from the region of Emilia Romagna. The bread course is a puff pastry disc of onions, Parmigiana-Reggiano and prosciutto di parma. It benefits from lashings of butter—you will devour it in short order.

A Fonte Canale Cristiana Tiberio 2018 paves the way for the upcoming deliciousness. Large white plates support mounds of colourful shreds, which we told are various vegetables, shellfish tartare, and miso spaghetti. It’s an essay in the nuances of texture and fragrance. Mildly zesty, it brings to mind Yu sheng, albeit without the conviviality of the prosperity toss. All you’ll hear is the soft clang of the spoon as the marooned caviar is rescued from the plate.

Your sapidity index will rise steeply on account of the scallop and mortadella ravioli. Dyed a light coral with beetroot to resemble slices of mortadella sausage, these exquisite parcels sit in a fennel clam chowder while straddling slices of fermented apple. It’s a blissful plate of elegance that displays maturity in playfulness. Paired interestingly with a spritz of German riesling, tonic water and green apple juice, the beverage accentuates the voluptuous quality of the seafood sauce to the highest degree.

The next dish turns out to be the weakest player. Eggplant is first roasted, then smoked and topped with a powder of burnt onion that is unapologetically bitter—which is why existing flavours are overshadowed by acridness. The supposed reference to contra fillet is beyond me. If not for the wine, a ruby red Barbera d’Alba Superiore from Bottura’s brother, Marco Bottura’s estate; this is time lost.

The sommelier presents the next wine, a Prünent Garrone 2018 from the Piedmont region, albeit with very robotic mannerisms. The upside is that you can always count on a “robot” to be prompt in your wine pairing. Specifics including the grape varietal and vintages are methodically recited, before the veteran staff commands “prego, drink!” and retreats politely.

There is quiet finesse in the next plate of chawanmushi topped with rings of beef tongue, morel and mushroom fond. By right, a sauce this obscenely decadent shouldn’t work with a traditional bowl of steamed egg custard so delicate, but it did. On the opposite end of the flavour spectrum lies a bread stuffed guinea fowl in a neat sliver next to foie gras, which is equally on par with the egg custard. Both dishes in succession reflect Bottura’s soft spot for Japan.

Eel mingles with mallard in the next course with a blob of Villa Manodori balsamic vinegar lubricating the mash-up. It’s an incredible undertaking so unique that there is nothing derivative about it. The accompanying glass of vermouth Rosso by Baldo Baldini is a vivid red cherry tipple with a dash of bark spices and a pinch of vanilla. The pairing is beautifully intentional yet somewhat loosely experimental—a leitmotif throughout that justifies paying €190.

The menu moves into the dessert realm, your gaze is locked on a foie gras and lapsang souchong creme caramel flanked by pint-sized dots of caramelised onions and confit ginger. Its slight savoury persona makes it a class act, a seamless transition from the mains. For a person whose memory span doesn’t usually extend to desserts, especially during extravagant meals, every single one at Osteria Francescana is worth the extra RAM memory. You will never forget the dessert inspired by carbonara. It is an assertive little number featuring black pepper custard, guanciale, banana, pecorino cheese ice cream and the sneaky luxe insertion of caviar in an inverted wafer cone. The pairing with the Marco Sara Picolit 2018 suggests the attention of a radical, the orange wine checks in as luscious and honeyed, accentuating the tenacious flavours of the guanciale.

Last but not least, there’s a Christmas cracker shaped ravioli that carries the same trepidation that it does on Christmas morning. It contains wood-fired sweet potato, vanilla, mustard and lemon and is misted with a perfume of coffee tableside. Imagine Werther’s original butterscotch on steroids. This goes into the dessert hall of fame immediately.

It’s 3:30 p.m. and Bottura is working the dining room, stopping at all 5 tables to speak to his guests. I gobble down the last spoonful of ravioli, straightening my dress in great anticipation. He is exactly like he is on MasterClass, a moneybag of ideas governed by gentle mannerisms. This is a man who has a social conscience and founded a non-profit organisation Food for Soul, which focuses on food security, hunger and reducing food wastage. 

I do like many aspects of my meal at Osteria Francescana, but if I had to quibble about one thing, it would be the dispassionate approach to service that undermines the zeal of the kitchen. There are no culinary gimmicks here and it feels as if Bottura has evolved, embracing the vibrancy of the hyperlocal while paying homage to local traditions.

The bill for two persons is €800, but for a menu so eclectic and brilliant, I shall happily endure home cooking in the weeks to follow.