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Avant-Garde Meets Tradition on the Plate

A visit with the Italian culinary master every wine connoisseur should know
Massimo Bottura has earned three Michelin stars for the cuisine he serves at his 12-table Osteria Francescana in Modena.

Posted: Mar 10, 2014 11:00am ET

If there were a Nobel Prize for Parmigiano cheese, Massimo Bottura would certainly be its first laureate.

For more than 20 years, Bottura, Italy's most acclaimed modern chef, has worked to perfect a signature dish founded on the belief that this famous aged cheese made near his native Modena wasn't getting the respect it deserved.

"Why did we only use this incredible cheese—this symbol of our land—just to grate on pasta?" The 50-year-old Bottura, clad in chef's jacket and jeans, is nearly shouting.

That's a good question, and his Five Ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano in Different Textures and Temperatures is an even better response. The dish is a one-ingredient wonder that exalts Parmigiano into a delicious symphony of demi-soufflé, foam, liquid cream, a thin crisp and a brothy "breath of air."

As someone who has been eating home-cooked Italian food from birth, I am not often impressed by high-concept Italo-gastronomy. But much of what Bottura serves at his 12-table Osteria Francescana in Modena's ancient old town simply blows me away.

Bottura calls the cuisine that's won him 3 Michelin stars "tradition in evolution." In other words, he isn't innovating to show off, but to coax tradition to another level.

The man is a rare mix of passions—part contadino (farmer), part avant-gardist. It shows in his cooking and in his conversations that border on mad-genius rants.

Over espresso in his back office, he explains how Italy's food-and-wine renaissance will help save his country from its economic doldrums.

"Italy is in a very interesting moment," Bottura says, his intense gaze framed by an unruly mop of curls and black-rimmed glasses. "Now there are chefs across Italy developing a cuisine that talks in a deep way about terroir and traditions. And wine is the same."

"We have more biodiversity in Italy than in the whole world," Bottura hyperbolizes, pounding the table so hard the cups jump. "With flavors distilled through millennia!"

Last year, Bottura was Italy's culinary ambassador on a gastronomic tour of U.S. cities, and this year he will open the flagship restaurant of a new Eataly store in Istanbul. One day he might open a restaurant in New York, hometown of his wife, Lara Gilmore. But for now, he is rooted in Modena, where he has helped save and expand a local agricultural school. 

Bottura first learned cooking from his mother and grandmother. He discovered wine through his eldest brother, who in the 1970s collected Italy's then-revolutionary wines, from Ca' del Bosco Franciacorta to Angelo Gaja's Piedmont crus.

In 1986, Bottura was so bored with law school that he quit to open a roadside trattoria outside Modena and hired a pasta-making grandmother to help cook.

"We had these incredible wines—Sassicaia, Quintarelli, Valentini, Soldera—in a typical trattoria in the middle of nowhere. That was the start of a revolution!"

In 1994, Alain Ducasse paid a visit and invited Bottura to work a stage at his Louis XV in Monte Carlo. Inspired by the experience, Bottura opened Osteria Francescana. Another life changer came in 2000 when inventive Spanish chef Ferran Adrià invited him for a stint at his El Bulli.

"Ferran taught me the freedom to think in a different way," Bottura says, "to see Parmigiano as important as blue lobster."

Osteria Francescana's 1,600-label wine list mixes Italian and French legends (including Bottura's favorite red: Romano dal Forno Amarone) with sommelier Beppe Palmieri's favorite young producers, including Sicily's Arianna Occhipinti and the local Lambrusco of Cantina Della Volta, made with the same method as Champagne.

Tasting menus with course-by-course drink pairings include a wildly diverse selection of wines, ice-cold local chestnut beer and even cherry juice.

"We Italians are crazy," Bottura explains. "We love creating by breaking the rules."

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