Over our years of planning custom trips, we have arranged dining experiences of every kind. Street food strolls in Palermo’s historic markets, authentic pizza in Naples, seafood feasts on the waterfront in Puglia, traditional trattoria lunches in cities across the country, and fine dining extravaganzas. Perhaps the trickiest to manage, however, is a meal at celebrity chef Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena.
Sporting three Michelin stars and repeatedly crowned “the best restaurant in the world”, this culinary mecca has reached Shangri-la status over the past five years and it had become nearly impossible to book a table, even months in advance. That said, we’ve sent a number of gourmand clientele to dine here and will certainly have requests to arrange reservations in the future, so we thought that now would be a good time to experience what is often billed as a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience for ourselves.
Was it worth it? Here are our reflections:
Reserving a Table at Osteria Francescana
You can only book a table at Osteria Francescana online via their official website. The calendar opens six months in advance and there is a waiting list since tables book out so quickly.
We booked 6 months ago when the calendar opened for October. In pre-pandemic times, booking a table for lunch or dinner was nearly impossible. On the day we dined there, however, we did meet another American couple who had found a free table a few days before during a random online calendar check.
The takeaway: it is possible to book at the last minute (indeed, while checking the calendar just now we spotted three lunch spots open in November), but it takes a little luck and you need to be very flexible as far as your date and time. If you have your heart set on having dinner there while traveling in Italy, you need to plan far in advance and schedule your trip around the dinner slot you are able to secure instead of fitting a dinner into an itinerary that’s already been planned.
We had watched the first episode of the Netflix series, Chef’s Table dedicated to Massimo Bottura to prepare for the experience so we had somewhat of an idea of what to expect from dinner at Osteria Francescana.
In the documentary, Bottura comes off as a bundle of energy that needs to be focused, a big thinker who explodes with ideas that seem crazy at first but end up on the plate as refined and elegant presentations.
The takeaway: Massimo Bottura and Osteria Francescana have been the subject of numerous magazine features and interviews and it’s worth spending an hour or two getting a feel for his philosophy and spirit to better understand the origin of his dishes. Though the chef is respected as a culinary innovator, Bottura’s dishes are often praised for their playful lack of pretense.
The Dining Experience
The restaurant has three small dining rooms, each with just four tables seating two to four guests, so this is not the place to dine with a big group. The décor is spartan, with an odd lack of flowers; the only decoration on the table is a pile of homemade grissini bread sticks placed in the center. The actual tableware is lovely, an elegant frame for the food.
Diners can choose between the 12-course tasting menu or select individual dishes from the a la carte menu, many of which have become famous over the years. The current tasting menu is entitled “With a little help from my friends” and is a thoughtful homage to Italian cuisine of the past half-century. Each course honors a historic or contemporary Italian chef by reinterpreting one of their signature dishes, some dating back to the 1960s. There is also a parallel wine pairing menu that includes a wine-based cocktail, craft vermouth, and anisetta liqueur. Since we wanted to savor the full experience, we opted for the tasting and wine pairing menus.
We expected the meal to be more whimsical and fun. We started off on the right track with a gold-dusted wafer that said “CIAO” and the desserts had cool touches that evoked the lighthearted vibe of Bottura’s iconic “oops I broke the lemon tart” and a cone of gelato that fell on the ground. In addition, we were encouraged by the staff to toss the Insalata di Spaghetti al Caviale ourselves, “fare la scarpetta” (use bread to wipe our plates clean of sauce) with the two meat dishes, and crack the cone and mix in the caviar on the Zuppa Fredda di Carbonara. Overall, however, we felt like the evening missed on capturing the spirit of the chef that is portrayed in the media.
The takeaway: At this point, it is impossible for Osteria Francescana to live up to its hype. That said, dining here is an unforgettable “foodie” experience that you may want to plan a trip around.
The dishes—which Brian defined as “an umami fest”—are designed to bring together a concentration and complexity of flavors into one or two forkfuls. This worked in some dishes like the beautiful and tasty Volevo Essere Fritto but is lost the Savarin del Riso, where the porcini mushroom and morel broth covers any other flavors.
Dishes ranked (with commentary by Brian):
1) Zuppa Fredda di Carbonara – this was by far my favorite. It tasted like a carbonara dessert.
2) Le Capesante Ripiene di Mortadella – an interesting take: the mortadella takes the place of the pasta and is stuffed with a scallop.
3) Volevo Essere Fritto; Il Wafer si Veste D’oro, Minestra di pane – an excellent start with three beautiful and flavorful bites.
4) Insalata di Spaghetti al Caviale – refreshing vegetable spaghetti with caviar presented in a gorgeous square design.
5) Budino di Cipolla – an interesting savory “sweet” of foie gras pudding. All of the flavors are also laid out individually on the side of the dish to taste separately.
6) La Cipolla Fondente – dense baked pastry dough that melted in your mouth with a flavor of onion and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
7) Faraona all Creta and Risotto all Bergese – sopping up the sauce with the bread was divine.
8) Controfiletto di San Domenico – a piece of roasted eggplant made to look like a steak makes me want to eat a steak.
9) Riso Oro e Zafferano, Cannolo, Babà, and Camouflage – all great. The Riso Oro e Zafferano was especially interesting because I’ve had Marchesi’s gold-plated risotto and the flavor of the macaron brought the flavor right back.
10) Tortelli di Zucca – the height of “Michelin star-vation”- hat tip to our dining partner, Michelle, who introduced us to the term. A single tortello on a giant plate and the waiter spritzing the essence of coffee in the air over the table reminded us that we were there to taste and not get full.
11) Savarin del Riso – the mushroom broth was too much.
12) Germano Ripieno di Anguilla – Maria can’t understand why we always have to eat eel at these types of restaurants. This was a clear miss for both of our palates.