“It is not possible to step twice into the same river”
(Heraclitus, Fr. B91)
It doesn’t mean you cannot try, right?
The second time I dined in Osteria Francescana was different from the first time for some reasons:
First, and probably the most important – it wasn’t the first. One might say it’s being petty, but as in many other cases, the difference between 0 and 1 is significantly bigger than the difference between 1 and 2. All the things I found astonishing the first time were there, of course. The restaurant should keep the standards that made it enter the best restaurants in the world’s hall of fame, but this time they had a different impact on me.
Second, not less important – the first time I dined next to lovely R., while this time was next to Wonderful V., who in the meantime became my Wonderful Wife V. The personal became even more personal, while the very pleasant remained very pleasant and just painted in a unique shade.
And third, important as well – it was lunch and not dinner. Although the suits, ties and packed menu were there, entering and getting out of the restaurant in daylight (even if cloudy) made the experience somewhat more accessible.
Oh, and it was also my birthday.
When we arrived at the place where we stayed, we found it to be looking at the back entrance of the restaurant. So, the night before we saw members of the team relaxing a bit after shift, and when we went hunting for breakfast, we met Massimo Bottura entering the complex, all in deep thoughts. Acting like a real groupie I giggled, and Bottura, aware of this kind of gesture, smiled through the thoughts and said a polite “Buongiorno”. For me, it was enough.
This time the main theme of the menu was the River Po which cuts through all of the North of Italy, and has a main role in life of the regions he flows in. Almost every step of the menu has something to do with the river and its surroundings, and the menu opens a door: those who want can go deeper and beyond the plate, and for the others – the food is a mind-blowing experience by itself. For the former – let’s go.
Surprises and memories from the first time appeared at the table:
Fish’n’chips – but not: in the past, the locals used to preserve Aula fish in a marinade named Carpione, which here turned to be ice-cream on top of a tempura disk containing the fish crumbs. The fish is out of the marinade, the marinade came to life on its own, and even if you don’t know the whole story it's clear that it’s going to be a magical tour.
We got also a lard strip planted with Parmigiano-Reggiano and truffle crumbs, macrons filled with rabbit stew cream,
and “It’s not a Sardine” – two silver-colored crackers that left marks on our fingers and hid an eel puree. Each effect – soft texture, strong flavor, bright color - shone brilliantly on its own and combined perfectly.
Another sweet memory – cold Foie gras on a stick, injected with ages-aged balsamic vinegar and coated with caramelized hazelnuts and almonds. This time it came at the beginning of the meal, and we didn’t complain.
And only now the journey along the Po begins.
“Pollution Revolution” shed a light on the pollution all seas suffer from, regardless of depth or shore. The projector Bottura uses collects algae and cucumber broths into an empty oyster enriches them with oyster cream and beach plants and covered with deep lemon foam. The look of the dish is “polluted”, but the salty-sour flavors are fresh as clear sea, which is the true revolution.
Going close to the beach at Italy’s north-eastern tip you can find wooden constructions built in the water with ropes hanging down, going in and out of the water for 3 years. This is the habitat of oysters with partially pink shell and meaty texture that gave Bottura inspiration for the next dish – “La Vie en Rose as an oyster”. I’m still not sure if it came from the restaurant speakers or just inside our heads, but one cannot but hear Edith Piaf’s song by that name. A song that speaks about great happiness, pain, and worries that fade away. What we got was a plate with pink oysters swimming in Lambrusco and rose water, hibiscus powder and trout eggs, pink as well. It’s clear what is the sense that should follow the dish: life is pink and happy, soft and poppy, and mainly very tasty. From this point in time I can say that as La Vie en Rose was a song of hope after WWII, maybe it should lead our hope also today.
From pink to black. Very black. Cristoforo Messisbugo served as a steward for the Este family, the dukes of Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna in the first half of the 16th century. One of Messisbugo’s duties was to take care of the court’s banquets, duties he turned into a massive book which count some hundreds of recipes. In another book with the clear name “A New Book in which We will Learn to Make Any Kind of Food” appeared for the first time in Italian cooking books Sturgeon recipes, a very common fish in the Po around Ferrara, and its eggs, more commonly known as Caviar.
Bottura had played already in the past with Caviar when he served lentils cooked in fish broth inside a golden Caviar box, turning the most common food to the noblest. This time it was actually Caviar, served with pieces of Sturgeon and river crab, and the thick black liquid that coated them was a charred-burnt onion and Prosciutto stock. It has been already that the colors and flavors are well-defined, this time on the sweet-savory range of the river produce. Each dish is a step in a journey.
One interesting fact I learned while going deep into the story: Sturgeon and caviar recipes were quite common in Ferrara up until the 20th century, and the most famous place to find such dishes was the kosher delicatessen of Benvenuta “Nuta” Ascoli that stood until 1972 in Via Mazzini 62 in Ferrara’s city center. “Nuta” and her delicatessen found their place in eternity in Giorgio Bassani’s book “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”, where she became Batsabea De Fano.
The other tables in the room served three couples: Italians who seemed to know their way around the restaurant, two Americans who sounded like it wasn’t their first time as well, and another American couple that made us a little bit uncomfortable. It wasn’t only a “slightly” high volume – definitely unsuitable to the situation – but also secrets that we probably shouldn’t have heard and could use a more intimate environment. We will get back to them.
“Rice between fresh and salt water” took us deep into the land by inter-fishy relation. The Carpione marinade comes for another round as cream next to pieces of seabass. The two forms of fish hide well in risotto, but the real surprise comes when you smell and taste the classic combination of fennel and oranges. The unknown becomes a little bit known, but the classic gets a totally new form.
Another classic dish by Bottura is “An eel swimming up the Po river” that follows the story of an eel that tries to get to the river from the lagoons around Modena, and on its way gathers ingredients and memories. Our eel was smeared in Saba, which is – as the balsamic vinegar – the result of cooked grape leftovers. Not as balsamic vinegar Saba is cooked longer and aged less, therefore lacks the somewhat fancy historic cloak of its famous brother. In fact, it tastes more like a balsamic vinegar glaze. It’s a very complicated brothers’ relationship.
The eel swims on the plate with extra-smooth polenta on its one side, and on the other an enjoyable bright-green apple gel. No need to know anything besides this. After we cleaned our plates of the most enjoyable dish for me the sweet tooth, we could see the protagonist searching its way out, to the river.
“The garden in Autumn”, although we were already deep in the winter, takes some porcini and truffle mushrooms, tiny cauliflower, asparagus flower as well, and places them in a shell-thin brisèe circle. Our waiters poured into the plates a thick but gentle mixture of smoked vegetables which might have swallowed the delicate garden, but instead, it hugged them and gave the space they needed. It’s a small and delicate dish – a little surprising on its spot up the meal.
From autumn straight to spring. It’s not easy (to say the least) to describe “Snow under the sun”, and not only because it’s composed of around 20 ingredients: potato and Jerusalem artichoke, pine nuts and hazelnuts, snails and mushrooms, coffee and parsley – to name a few - but also it’s served under a light sweet garlic foam. The foam slowly pops one bubble after the other, like snow on the ground that slowly melts in the spring sun, revealing the layers beneath. It’s almost impossible to taste each ingredient but only as part of the spoon you take, no two alike.
We had one request after looking at the menu. It lacked one of Bottura’s signature dishes: Five ages (or generations, or decades, if you count in cheese years) of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Since Wonderful V. made me swear that we would eat this dish one way or the other, and since it anyway appears on the à-la-carte menu it was easy to accept our request. This dish is a journey in time between childhood and maturity of more than 4 years of cheese, and into cheese molecules that Bottura deconstructs and reconstructs. I waved to the 30-months old demi-souffle which started its aging process around my previous visit, and I only missed the perfect presentation we got last time. Therefore, I would do the undone and quote myself:
"We couldn't avoid the will of power when Pino finished explaining the dish with a dramatic pause which was followed by: "This dish is made only with two ingredients – Parmigiano… and time". Getting off stage and leaving us smiling to ourselves”
We were lucky to sit in such an angle to spot in our hawk-eye vision plates traveling to the rather cheerful table in the other room. This dish didn’t appear on the menu, but it’s impossible to read or watch anything about Massimo Bottura without mentioning “The crunchy part of the lasagna”. Like with Parmigiano-Reggiano Bottura doesn’t invent a new dish – we all know what is lasagna – and doesn’t make it less accessible. On the opposite. He helps to find one of its hidden corners, its real corner, and puts it at the center of the plate, flying in vivid colors above the béchamel and ragù that usually get all the attention. It’s like eating a homemade lasagna – and so far from it.
Here’s a 2:30 minute clip that shows the full process of how to make this dish, and I highly recommend to put on your headphones. It’s not the same without.
It’s time for three “main courses” that extract from guinea hens flavors that I’m sure they couldn’t believe they had.
The first is another small yet condensed dish – potato ravioli with a roasted Parmigiano-Reggiano ceiling, and if that’s not enough for you, they are followed by a burnt thick sauce made of roasted hen bones.
The following dish is a homage to a dish Bottura had on his 8th birthday in the restaurant of Peppino and Maria Cantarelli. Back then it was a whole Guinea hen roasted in the oven after being coated in clay, allowing it to ooze its liquids without spilling a drop. A Guinea hen confit.
Now, of course, Bottura doesn’t use clay but the top-of-the-line ovens but catches the spirit of the dish by allowing the gelatinous parts of the hen catch moisturize the other ingredients. It seems that they become “average” – the dryer ones get moist and the juicier ones don’t get dry – but actually, all of the parts are elevated. The clay is represented by chestnut and truffle chips laid over the hen, and to balance the heavy flavor of the roasting we found some cubes of apple marmalade, an always favorite combination.
And after the carcass and meat were taken care of, it’s time to handle the skin and offal – nothing goes to waste. The skin became a crunchy disk that carried hen liver and chocolate patè and apple Savòr – the region’s version of a jam, based on the eel-smeared Saba. At this point, you already know that I really like pairs of meat and sweet, and it was definitely a treat, leading us to the actual sweet part of the meal.
And that part started with “A small apple as a container of ideas”, an apple empty of its “appleness” but full of other non-apple bits: pumpkin cream, almonds ice-cream, amaretti cookies and white truffles. What are the ideas behind the dish? Where does Bottura lead each of them? Maybe the idea is that there isn’t an idea? At this stage, after floating around with so many stories and ideas, I begged for a more focused dish – not this one.
Like the eel, we also swam up the Po and got to its origin. “Here the Po is born” simulates Monte Viso mountain in Piemonte, the starting point of the river. The origin for this dessert is Mont Blanc, and indeed you will find chestnuts, but also smoked whiskey ice-cream, Cassis mousse, while the mountain slopes are Sichuan pepper meringue shards. There aren’t fewer ingredients than the previous one, but not like that one this dessert was balanced, and each ingredient supported the others and all created a harmonious dish that “made sense”.
To keep us happy and continuing the theme of memory we were served wonderful yuzu Madeleine cookies and other kinds of delicious sweets: popping cherry sphere, “A hare in the woods” – a chocolate circle sprinkled with coffee and herbs powder, and a whole tiramisù in one small ball. Like in the first time we were handed on our way out a small bottle of balsamic vinegar made especially for the restaurant, and after last time we were already familiar with its culinary value. We bought another present for us - Bottura's philosophy and recipe book, signed by the artist.
Not like the first time Bottura didn’t walk between the tables for the almost standard ceremony of handshakes and photos (I got mine from back then). Or at least he and we thought so. The odd couple next to us protested loudly to the waiter, the room supervisor and the head waiter that they didn’t meet Bottura “although we flew all the way from Los Angeles and paid lots of money”, and no one of the hierarchy managed to explain that it was true, Bottura was in the office but couldn't meet them. They kept on arguing, he more calmly, she less, and on our way out we saw Bottura entering the room unwillingly, as long as the volume and anger levels will stay reasonable. At the end of the day, we also managed to tell him a proper goodbye 😊
At the head of the menu, you will find the relevant piece from Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” talking about his Madeleine cookies memories. The cookies we got at the end of the meal explained the idea behind it. After traveling all over the globe, setting every record, and got into the world’s hall of fame of chefs, Bottura goes back – following a cookie or lasagna – to his personal past. Recreating his historic dishes demonstrates the changes he and Osteria Francescana went through over the years and prepared them both for the next stage. When you have such an immense repertoire and absolute capability, you can juggle between different time and space, and we might have been lucky to eat the most perfect form of such dishes, which after that there’s no way of getting better, but to start something new.
On the 2nd of June, Osteria Francescana opened again after being closed since the first government decree of the 9th of March, even before Italy and the world got closed. The new menu is totally new and draws inspiration from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, since this was the date the record was released in the US. Among other dishes, you can find “Strawberry Field” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, that one can guess what they hide.
Much stronger than the first time, when I felt that Osteria Francescana wants to control the whole experience, this time it invited us to choose our path, left lots of space for interpretation, and was much more relaxed in general. How little we knew about what was about to happen.
Heraclitus loved rivers and loved water. Another iconic phrase of his was “Panta Rhei”, “Everything flows”. If that is the lesson we should learn from what we’ve been through in the last six months – let it be.