Chefs are extremists.
When an ingredient, technique, or another chef’s work speaks to us, we become obsessive. I visited Modena with another chef, and we were on a pilgrimage. Modena is the home of Chef Massimo Bottura. We planned a trip from California to Italy based on the availability of dinner reservations. Our obsession: Bottura’s three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana. More specifically, one dish: Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano (above). Of course, there was much more. But it all started there.
One dinner reservation led to a grand adventure. We travelled from Rome through Tuscany to Modena, then on to the Veneto, Venice, and back to Rome. When we planned the trip, we had no idea that it would be the last time we’d see Italy before a world health pandemic closed borders (and sent us all home for an extended time out). I’m happy to say we made the most of it!
Modena is in northern Italy in the Emilia-Romagna region. It’s the birthplace of the real balsamic vinegar and of opera great, Pavarotti. It’s also the home of Ferrari, Maserati, and original home of Lamborghini. We visited both the city and the surrounding region. Having a car is helpful for out-of-city excursions. But it’s more of a liability if you’re staying in the city.
The old central part of Modena is a collection of narrow cobblestone streets and piazzas. It’s a very walkable city. You’ll find many locals use bicycles to get around town. Restaurants, bars, and boutiques are everywhere. Beyond the walls of the oldest part of town, you’ll find more modern neighborhoods and commercial areas. With few exceptions, all you need is within walking distance of the Piazza Grande.
A visit to the historic Mercato Albinelli is a must. Emilia-Romagna is known for its wealth of delicious foods. This is an opportunity to see the local bounty in one place. I promise, there will be something there that you’ve never seen before, that will make your heart flutter, and will make you wish you could stay until you’ve tasted it all. The assortment of regional handmade pastas, alone, was enough for me to come to that conclusion. Don’t even get me started about the many types of radicchio I’d never tasted before.
As you wander the cobblestone streets, you’ll have the chance to admire and visit the Duomo di Modena, the Torre Civica, Museum Palace, and other sites. Since Modena is the home of the liquid gold known as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, you’ll want to visit a producer while you’re there. You don’t even have to leave town to do a tasting with one of the oldest (since 1605), Acetaia Giuseppe Giusti.
This is a perfect city to take a passeggiata, an evening stroll. Shops and boutiques are open in the evening (maybe more than you’ll find in the middle of day). Enjoy an aperitivo with the locals. Have a spritz or a glass of local wine with some small bites. If you’re lucky enough to stay in a place with your own kitchen, you can prepare what you found at the market earlier. But, don’t skip dessert! You’ll find some wonderful little pastry shops and bakeries that offer a tantalizing selection of dolce and you’ll want to try them all!
Now that we’ve meandered back to thoughts of dinner, it seems like a good time to return to the reason we are in Modena…
Chef Massimo Bottura
I first met Chef Bottura in Napa Valley in 2003. He was a guest chef at the Worlds of Flavor Conference, I was working there. I’d never met anyone like him (never will). His innovative modern cuisine is based on heartwarming stories of his love of his home, his culture, and traditions. I’ve followed him ever since. I worked with him again in New York City on two occasions. He always remembered me (or at least treated me, genuinely, as if he did). And his cuisine continued to transport me, both to the future and to the past. It spoke to my soul.
Today, Massimo Bottura and his amazing wife Lara Gilmore own several restaurants, an inn, and a non-profit called Food for Soul. Food for Soul is an international organization founded in 2016 to “shine light on invisible potential”. Their mission: “By enabling the transformation of people, places and food, we build a culture of value that will strengthen community resilience, open opportunities for social and economic mobility and build healthier and more equitable food systems”. They are building a better future in the same way he creates his cuisine – with love for home, culture, and tradition, shared with all.
Chef Bottura was not in Modena when we were there. I missed seeing him in his home element. But we did eat in two of their restaurants. See the photos below for a quick peek at lunch at Franceschetta58 and dinner at Osteria Francescana. We also stayed one night at their gorgeous inn outside the city of Modena. At Casa Maria Luigia they are taking the concept of an agriturismo to a whole new level. By the way, the breakfast there was as fabulous, as you should expect. There is now an Osteria Francescana at Casa Maria Luigia, as well.
This may have been a once in a lifetime journey, but I have every intention of doing it again as soon as possible!
Note: for a little fun in the kitchen with the chef and his family, click here.