Osteria Francescana: A Meal at the World's Best Restaurant

One afternoon, 12 courses, and three-and-a-half hours in Modena, Italy.

Down the slippery, cobblestoned streets of Modena, Italy, a salmon-colored building—inauspicious save for the Italian flag above the entryway and covered with tape that reads #1—is home to the best restaurant in the world, Osteria Francescana, the kind of place that only opens up its reservations three month in advance. It's a quiet mid-morning when I land at the marble doorstep, and few are in the streets. A group of three arrives; then another pair, all of whom flit by the doorway for a furtive glance, before taking cover in the shade of the buildings opposite the door. There are no windows at Via Stella 22, and at 12:28 p.m., there are no signs of life, either.

But at 12:30, exactly, the door clicks open. As we move into the restaurant's foyer, we are greeted and handed off every three feet to another host, which results in an echoing chorus of buongiorno, buongiorno, buongiornothrough the hall. On the way to our table, we pass a startlingly real, life-sized security guard (fake) and a trio of stuffed pigeons by Maurizio Cattelan, which sit above a trompe l’œil trash bag cast in bronze by British artist Gavin Turk. Chairs are pulled out, napkins unfurled, and we are seated, settled. Large lunch menus, broken up by aperitif (two choices), starters (four), primi (five), and secondi (five); and smaller menus that outline the 12-course tasting menus—titles like Tradition in Evolution, Sensations—are presented. The hosts disappear. Nine paintings of finches by Belgian artist Carsten Höller keep us company. The restaurant's 12 tables fill, and the show begins.

Italians, few would disagree, are known for their laid-back approach to life and the constraints of time—dolce far niente, as the saying goes. Sweet idling. Yet at Osteria Francescana, named the World's Best Restaurant in July, there is very little of that. Every action is met with purpose, and a scrawl on the menu, a quote from Marcel Proust's seven-volume A Remembrance of Things Past, is indicative of that end purpose: "I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses."

Massimo Bottura: A Q&A with the Chef of the World's Best Restaurant in 2016

It is disorienting to eat at Osteria Francescana. Looks, more than ever, can be—and very much are—deceiving; tastes befuddling. Ingredients are smoked, foamed, smashed, cracked, chilled, tossed, layered, and coated. Dish nine, a croccantino of foie gras, resembles a bite-sized Magnum ice cream bar, replete with toasted almonds and a sticky brown coating not wholly unlike chocolate (it's balsamic soy). Dish three, 'Riso Levante,' is soft, sticky rice in a sauce of orange and bergamot over local perch, the shallow bowl spritzed table-side with citrus and vanilla. "No madam, this is not Chanel No. 5," the maître d says to me, before bowing over and spraying twice. A Caesar salad, when it comes, tastes most strongly like a cup of tea, with chamomile, mint, lavender, and a red powder made of dried cherries and berries. It is a sensory puzzle of the very best kind.

Even chef Massimo Bottura's classics remain a surprise, regardless of whether or not they've already graced thousands of televisions around the world (via Netflix's Chef's Table series, for one) or been dissected, ingredient by ingredient, in lengthy magazine features. "The crunchy part of the lasagna," one of Bottura's signature interpretations of Italian cuisine, sees the dehydrating, frying, smoking, and roasting of a lasagna noodle to give that smokey, burnt piece of the pan its time to shine. "Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures" delivers on its promise, and then some—a soufflé of 24-month-old parmesan, a crunchy galette of 40-month-old cheese, an 'air' made with crusts from 40- and 50-month-old parmesan, a foam made from 30-month-old parmesan, and a creamy sauce made with a 36-month-old parmesan are all a different tactile and gustatory experience. Dessert—"Oops! I dropped the lemon tart"—is lemon through and through: there's a lemon tart, lemon dust, lemongrass ice cream, pieces of lemon peel, and lemon zabaglione. I generally don't like lemon, but I liked this.

Yet for all of the foams, whips, creams, and crunches, and for all of the restaurant's awards and accolades and the celebration of Bottura as a culinary innovator, what struck me most about Osteria Francescana was its very lack of pretense. Before the lunch rush, Bottura's wife and business partner, Lara Gilmore, watered the plants on the street, and I later saw the maître d on his hands and knees, sudsing and scrubbing the marble doorstep. As I left, the chef himself materialized in grey New Balance sneakers and his trademark black-frame square glasses, waving to me as he passed. "Buonasera," he called after me as I crossed the threshold into the warm summer light. "Buonasera."