Written by Vinnie LeDonne
I had the incredible opportunity of dining at Osteria Francescana in Modena on our recent trip to Italy. The trip itself was planned around the reservation, although getting one was no easy task. If you’re not familiar with Osteria Francescana, it is currently ranked as the number one restaurant in the world by World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The chef and owner, Massimo Bottura, is as big of a personality as he is a chef and he is doing some amazing things outside of the kitchen as well. Even before the accolades, it was nearly impossible to get a reservation.
The restaurant has twelve total tables and does two seatings per day, one at lunch and one at dinner. They’re closed on Sundays and Mondays. To secure our reservation, I had to wait in an online queue in October, a full three months in advance of the date we were planning to go. The January reservations are made available at 10 AM local time in Modena on October 1st and it was suggested that I log on an hour before that. I found myself beginning to refresh my computer screen at 1 AM CST (9 AM in Modena) and settled in for what would be a long night. I set an alarm on my phone every fifteen minutes to hit refresh for the next seven and half hours! Finally, at 8:30 AM I refreshed and couldn’t believe that my reservation was accepted. I had read countless reviews online and was fully expecting to walk away disappointed from my efforts as many others before me had.
My intention is not to humble brag here, but simply to put in perspective how lucky I was to find myself sitting at one of those twelve tables on a cold January night. The magnitude of what was to come began to sink in during the days leading up to our reservation. For starters, I don’t expect to have the opportunity to dine at three Michelin star restaurants very often (there are only 14 in the United States). Aside from that, we were going to dine at the best restaurant in the world while it held a title that has bounced all around the world for the past decade. And lastly, with an active and hands on chef, I knew there was a possibility that we would get to interact with Massimo if he was in town. This was shaping up to be a truly once in a lifetime opportunity, and it did not disappoint.
We arrived in Modena early on Thursday, January 17th. We explored the quaint town for most of the afternoon, including a visit to the Ferrari museum, before dropping by Osteria Francescana just to check it out. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance and had to know exactly where it was, how long it would take to walk there, and other crazy things because I was just too excited. As we walked by I noticed a white Maserati out front with a stack of vinyl records in the passenger seat. He’s here, Massimo was going to be in the building tonight.
Finally 8:30 PM rolls around and we arrive. I take a deep breath before opening the door and…its locked. What?! Mind racing, pain sets in…”did I get the wrong day? were we late? what is happening?!” After a few seconds and what felt like an eternity, I noticed a doorbell and rang it. It’s like the opposite of that corny dad joke, they literally don’t let just anyone in. Almost immediately the door swings open and several staff members are waiting in a small lobby area. The first thing I notice is the life size wax figure just inside the door dressed as a sheriff. He kind of looked like Dwight Schrute from the office.
The staff removes our coats and shows us to our table. The interesting part of the layout is you really never see anything outside of the room you are in. It creates the illusion that you are the only ones there. Our group of 5 sat at two tables pushed together and we were seated in the room with two women at the other table. I knew how small it was but I don’t think it registered until I settled in how unique this was. Even twelve tables in a small space can seem loud or full if the tables are close together. But this was different and really rather fascinating given the circumstances. It now felt like it was just us and we were eating at someone’s house for an intimate dinner party.
The sommelier came over to the table and asked if we were interested in the wine pairing or ordering from the bottle list. We agreed as a group that we really wanted the focus to be on the food and decided to pass on the pairing and ordered a couple of bottles. The wine list is presented in a book much like an old encyclopedia. It went on and on and although I enjoyed looking through to see quite a few selections I recognized and some of the high end price tags, I decided to let the sommelier make a suggestion. I told him we wanted to start with some bubbles, a champagne or prosecco, whatever he recommended.
“Sir, you know there is a difference between the two?”
GAFF. I am dying on the inside at this point. OF COURSE I know there is a difference between the two. I wanted to try and recover, "I own a restaurant! I've been in the business forever! I just meant whichever sparkling wine!” I didn’t say anything, just laughed and made the best of it. I explained, "I just meant whatever you think pairs best with our first couple courses.” He ended up being great and we chatted throughout the night, but for anyone that knows me, that’s the most “Vinnie” way to start out this dinner.
We decided on the “Everything” menu which combined some of his classic dishes with some modern ones. You can check out the details of the dishes in the photo descriptions and if you’re interested in more, there is a video at the bottom of this post. The amuse bouche came out, followed by the first course and then the next. We were a little quiet as a group. I think we were settling in and trying to feel it out. We hadn’t had much to drink so the filters were still on and we were trying our best to be on our best behavior. Much of the trip at this point was highlighted by bottles of wine, loud conversation and constant laughing. No one mentioned it, but I think collectively we all just felt a little out of place. Thankfully, at the end of the second course, our server Emilo broke the ice for us. He had barely finished describing the dish and our plates were empty. He quipped, “I guess you didn’t like it!” Thousands of miles away and they’re using the same server jokes. Our table erupted with laughter and it felt like home. The staff began to interact with us more and we started asking more questions and wondered what we were ever worried about.
The big moment came between the fifth and sixth courses when Massimo Bottura came to the table. He didn’t stay long, but we talked about music and his love for New Orleans. He was kind enough to take a few pictures with us before he described his famous “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano” to us. Looking back, I wish I would have interacted with him more. I think I was so caught up in the moment and just enjoying what was going on that I sat back instead of engaging him. I wish I would have told him about Meribo and what we do here. I should have told him that I’ve watched his Chef’s Table episode so many times I can practically recite it. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful moment and one I will hold onto for a long time.
Our meal continued on course after course with one exceptional thing after another. Each bite was so perfect and intentional. Whether you have an amazing pallet or not, you can appreciate each dish individually and as a whole. For the trained pallet you are able to pick up the subtle and unique flavors that are incorporated throughout. Even for the most basic of pallets you taste how perfect each bite is. There was likely more than a few things on the menu that any of us at the table wouldn’t ordinarily order, or even eat for that matter. Yet because each dish is so thoughtfully balanced, you don’t even notice that you’re eating something you thought you may not care for.
As our meal came to end with the famous “Oops, I dropped the Lemon Tart” dessert, a few mignardises and a round of espresso, we were eager to reflect back on an incredible night. We had been dining for over three hours. It was 11:45pm as we signed the check and I’m still not sure where the evening went. I can’t pinpoint any large gaps of time between courses, which means we were eating for three hours straight! On our way out we were presented with a private label balsamic vinegar to take with us.
Our experience was so unique that it will undoubtedly be something I remember forever. It’s still a little surreal to have been at this famous restaurant, talking with a world famous chef that I watch in Netflix documentaries and follow his travels all over the world, and to see its not much different than our quaint little restaurant in Covington, Louisiana. Sure, they’re doing things that have given them the title of “World’s Best Restaurant” and they deserve every bit of those accolades. But at the end of the day its a small restaurant, in a small town, with a small and friendly staff who likely bitch about doing side work or guests trying to substitute things on the menu. I find the thought of being not that different from a place like that really inspiring.