TRAVEL

Destination: Modena

Years ago, all it took was a simple a few tortellini in brodo to catapult me into the Cult of Culinaria that is Emilia Romagna, Italy's northeastern region and the country's bread basket.  After my first taste, I fell hard into fully warranted idolatry of Emilia Romagna and its regional dishes. I became more than convert, more than one of the fervent masses, I had a calling to which I became a self-proclaimed gastronomic preacher on mission to bring the masses to the Temple of Taste.  Conversion is simple enough when your pantheon of gods includes Parmigiano, Prosciutto and Balsamico, and continual repetition of the words tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne, cappelletti is your daily prayer.  But I quickly found out that for all those years I've been waxing poetic on Emilia Romagna,  Darius, partner in life and travel, has only been to the region for archaeological day trips to Ravenna and Bologna.  It was time for a drive.

Roma-Modena is an easy trip.  By rail, it's approximately three hours - two hours and change on a high speed train, switching to a 25-minute regional train at Bologna Centrale.  By car is a different journey, a somewhat scenic four hours and more sprawl up the A1 autostrada, and we choose a morning drive to avoid Modena's notorious nebbia, a thick fog that practically hides the city from view. 

There is nothing remarkable about Modena upon first arriving at the edge of town, after passing through flat plains of farms and factories.  Just another one of Italy's city-towns - modern streets feeding to medieval center,  a bit of old and and a bit of new.    A former Roman outpost, a fortified medieval town, a contemporary city,  Modena is the font of the world's best balsamic vinegar and the driving force behind Italy's luxury automotive industry- both of which require generational artistry. Like many Italian towns, there are mom-and-pop shops, large chains, art galleries, churches, cute scooters, hand-crafted bicycles and well-dressed residents but it the rhythm and pace that sets Modena apart from the rest -  an easy cadence where every thing, old and new, flows together harmoniously like an old Beatles song and fits together like a Ravensburger jigsaw puzzle. 

Where to go and What to do:  I started a list and I realized that aside from eating, my other suggestion is simply being.  Modena is a living, breathing city, far from the open-air museum of Rome and Florence.  It is meant to be lived, and by all means walked.  A pastiche of history from pre-antiquity to tomorrow is on every path.  Walk on the Via Aemilia, the ancient Roman road that runs from Rimini to Piacenza and bisects Modena at its very center-  the Modena Cathedral, and then really take a look at the bas relief on the church's structural walls- especially a gothic arch entrance near the bell tower where the months are medievally depicted as the wine making process.   Walk some more:  Modena is one of the nook-and-cranny cities with beautiful shops and hidden curiosities like the small lingerie/karoake bar.   Grab a map (physical or virtual) and make your own walking tour.   Bike: as just one city in the pianura padana (regional plains), Modena is flat, which means it is choc-a-bloc with cyclists and places to cycle to and from whether following those monumental walls, slowly pedaling around the historic center or circumnavigating the entire city as a whole.  Finally, drive - the charming team at I Love Maranello will bring a Ferrari to your front door for a test drive around the area, or else, stay in the passenger seat and enjoy a little Enzo double feature at Modena's Museo Ferrari, and Maranello's Ferrari Museum and FactoryFor those looking for the kind of culture you can bottle up, I suggest booking a tour of the acetaia, the family-run balsamic vinegar makers where you'll learn the decades long process and find out how balsamic vinegar can make or break family relationships.

Where We Ate:   Even though every where you eat in Modena is amazing, it pays to have friends that live there, and if I didn’t, I’d pay for a Modenese to be my friend just for the day because once you know one Modenese, you’re guaranteed the best tortellini in the city- and it will never be the same place.  NB:  we did not dine at Italy's Numero Uno Osteria Francescana (been there, loved it).  If you can get a reservation, go.

We found the t-spot (t for tortellini, I'm funny) at L'Incontro, a pizzeria in nearby Maranello recommend by our dear Silvana who insists that owner Erica makes the best tortellini in town.  I know what you are thinking- a pizzeria?  True tortellini lovers will know that it's not about where you eat the tortellini but the only the tortellini you eat and Erica did not disappoint: her tortellini in brodo was off the charts- soothing and delicious.  Bonus points for location- the non-description pizzeria is via Dino Ferrari, across the street from the Ferrari high school and down the street from the factory so when you’re sitting window at a L’Incontro table, expect to spot a Dino or California cruising by.

Silvana also made sure we vacuum-packed up a few kili of parmesan cheese from Belli Formaggi & Salumi, a family-owned delicatessen in Maranello.   One of my favorite kinds of investigative research into a new culture is via the local deli, and Belli did not disappoint.  Silvana and I chatted up signore, while discussing digesting techniques.  Signor Belli had me taste what I think were deep-fried porchetta rinds- my latest addiction, and I purchased two small bottles of his family's 35-year-old balsamic vinegar- asking price 55 euro.

Back in Modena, our daytime focus was Mercato Albinellilocated smack in the center of the city - in other words, the perfect snack point whilst checking out the town.  The ace up my sleeve is my friend Lara, author, art collector, and long time Modena resident whose husband just so happens to be Bottura.  Lara told us to get there early and beeline for frittelle di bacalà, Modena’s version of deep-fried codfish seasoned with oregano and garlic.  We ate that and more- the historic market has everything, including an incredible fried chicken. Tip:  go to the ATM in advance.

I was insistent on having dinner at Franceschetta 58, Osteria Francescana's little cousin and chef Massimo Bottura's pet project.  And I am glad we did.  Franceschetta 58 is the opposite of the Italian restaurant stereotype.  In a former mechanic shop, Franceschetta is a cool slip of a spot - a long room with black tables, putty colored walls, ceiling to floor windows, and a bit of mismatched dishes on the walls. Everyone in the room is either a Bottura friend or a fan, so the vibe was energetic and fun.  The kitchen ishelmed by Bernardo, a Roman-born, Francescana-trained chef, who cooks up monthly changes dishes with Bottura inspirations.  The best way I can describe the menu is experimental Italian tapas where tradition and taste duke it out in your mouth.  We went à la carte and tried everything on the menu including the creamed cod, the low-cooked egg with black truffle, anEmilia burger (Bottura's signature hamburger and song to his homeland), and those tradition-turning piadine with what may have been a bit of kimchi.


On our way out of Modena, as per Lara, we stopped at Generi Alimentari Da Panino, a small stand-up sandwich joint around the corner from Osteria Francescana.  Da Panino is the edible baby of Francescana’s sommelier Beppe Palmieri.  For seven euro you can anyone of seven hand-crafted sandwiches created by Palmieri and chef Cristian Lo Russo. We had the saltimbocca alla modenese with chicken, prosciutto cotto and a parmesan salsa, and a beef tartare, plus we took a bacala, boiled potato and herb sandwich for the road.   Bonus points for the cute paper placemats and the artisanal carbonated drinks from Galvani.

Franceschetta's low-cooked egg

Where We Slept: Stella21, an artists’ loft located within the medieval fortication walls of Modena, and conveniently located just two doors down and across the from Osteria Francescana, Italy’s restaurant Numero Uno. In fact, if you hang out on the street late nights, you may just catch a glimpse of Massimo & Co.  Why I loved the apartment? Aside from location, the attic apartment is a Fabergè egg for art and design lovers.  The apartment is lined with art books, and decorated with art piece furniture like my favorite Eames lounge and ottoman, as well as original paintings and prints, all carefully culled by owner Francesca, a restoration artist.  Her open-plan kitchen is mod Italian with a Nespresso and a mini-cabinet of curiosity stocked with artisanal balsamic vinegar.  The bedroom has an Italianized shikibuton, a comfortable futon/floating bed, and full bathroom. I could have stayed inside at Stella21 all day and night.  My favorite hideaway is the apartment’s tower annex (excellent spot to hide children or annoying friends) and its view of the rooftops… and fog … of Modena.

 

Emilia Romagna, a revelation

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

Not long ago, I find myself on a journey in search of art in towns with charming names like Ferrara, Parma, Forlì and Ravenna but as soon as I arrive in Bologna’s Stazione Centrale, the train station that is to become my primary radial point, I know that my adventures will be of another kind.

I am in Emilia-Romagna, terra del gusto, the land of taste. A northern region privileged with a broad range of weather conditions thanks to its nearly coast-to-coast span from the Adriatic to the Apennines. The kaleidoscopic location allows the region to produce a veritable cornucopia of PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication) recognized products- a divine 33, the highest count for any Italian region. By those statistics alone, Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s gastronomical holy land.

Emilia-Romagna’s cult of culinaria is led by the incomparable triumvirate of prosciutto, balsamico (balsamic vinegar) and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Individually, its cured meats, cheeses, wines, vegetables and fruits are more than just table talk. In fact, a plate of salumi (cured meats) or a large chunk of parmigiano is the antipasto introduction to any dinner and the coup de grace to the entire meal. It is not a surprise that eating in Emilia-Romagna is gastro-enlightening, a spiritual awakening of mind and belly.

My days become revelations as I theorize a beatific “circle of life” between the prosciutto and parmigiano as the pigs are raised on the cheese’s whey, without one there could not be the other. In Modena, I am intoxicated by aged balsamic vinegar, a luscious nectar home-grown just a few kilometres down the street from the futuristic Enzo Ferrari museum and the Lamborghini factory. I conclude that Ferrari and Lamborghini’s meticulous handcrafted details are logically birthed from a town of patience since the very best balsamic vinegar is aged over years and decades. And my postulations, theories and declarations course as much ground as the regional trains: prosciutto, mortadella, felino, piadine, tigelle, lambrusco, pasta...

Everything good comes from Emilia-Romagna. This is my mantra. If pasta is considered the iconic comfort food, then it is Emilia-Romagna we must thank for placating our palates with tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne and cappelletti. (And I personally thank Parma for adding just a bit of butter.) It is not surprising that the region, whose total population is less than that of city of Rome, has twenty-six Michelin starred restaurants (and 25 bib gourmands), including the world’s fifth best restaurant in the world in Modena, Osteria Francescana.

At Osteria Francescana, I come full circle. Art is what motivates Chef Massimo Bottura’s avant-garde creations such as bollito misto, non misto (a clockwork of varying cooked meats) and Cinque età del Parmigiano Reggiano in diverse consistenze e temperature (the ever clever five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese). His heart belongs to Emilia-Romagna ~his dishes tell tales of the region’s (and Italy’s) history and relationship to its food specialties ~ and Bottura is also constantly inspired by contemporary art. A quick look around the restaurant and I spy pieces by Francesco Vezzoli, Maurizio Cattelan, Jonathan Borowksy and Gain Turk. I am having a mini-Venice Biennale moment when my final revelation hits me: art and food, of any genre, are gemelle cosmiche, soul filling cosmic twins whose only requirement is thoughtful digestion.

Emilia-Romagna, I can’t quit you.

How to get there: Getting to Emilia-Romagna is quite easy. Region capital Bologna has its own airport that accommodates national and international flights. Bologna also has direct connectivity via rail to and from Rome, Milan, Florence and Venice. With train station Bologna Centrale as home base, most of Emilia Romagna’s towns are reachable by inexpensive regional trains via Ferrovie Emilia Romagna and Treni Italia.

Hot Pockets: Conversation with Massimo Bottura, Superstar Intellectual Italian Chef

Hot Pocketsis a series of chef interviews that appear on my blog or for other publications. This article was originally written for Fathomand published on Friday 21st November 2014.  

Our continuing adventures during Chefs Travel week takes us to Italy for a converation between contributing editor Erica Firpo and Massimo Bottura, the chef whose flagship, Osteria Francescana, has three Michelin stars and sits at #3 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list — about his new cookbook, about food and art, about the importance of Playboy to the young boy's mind.

MODENA, Italy – Every time I think about the time I had lunch at Osteria Francescana, chef Massimo Bottura's three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, I smile. Who else would create a transcendental dish dedicated to parmesan and call it The Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano? And who would sit you in a restaurant decorated with his personal art collection which includes pieces by Vezzoli and Cattelan?

To make a long story short, a few years ago I treated myself to Bottura's tasting menu at his restaurant in Emilia-Romana. The next thing I knew, I was driving around Modena with Bottura to meet his wife Lara Gilmore and to say hello to pieces by Maurizio Cattelan, David Salle, the Chapman brothers, and Marcel Dzama, among others. I told them I loved every piece and therefore I loved them. They told me they were writing a book.

Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is his new conceptual cookbook, a beautiful tome that looks gorgeous on the coffee table. It's filled with Bottura's stories — transporting tales through head, heart, and stomach. As a reader, you take the journey with him. Bottura is a creator: His dishes are edible, personal stories that traverse travel, tradition, perspective, and, to some, patience. They are as much about art and word play as they are about culinary experimentation. We recently had a chat about all of the above.

Osteria Francescana

A kitchen scene, as appears in Bottura's cookbook. Photo by Stefano Grazieri.

What was the first piece of art you purchased?

One of the first contemporary works we bought was Turisti by Maurizio Cattelan. We saw the taxidermy pigeons at the Venice Biennale in 1997. By December, once the exhibition was dismounted, ten were in our apartment in Modena. We didn't dare put them in the restaurant at the time, but today some of the pigeons are hanging from the rafters of Osteria Francescana. We installed them after a renovation in 2012. The rest of them sit quietly on a bookshelf in our living room, observing us from above.

What was the last? What's next? What else do you collect?

I just bought, after years of desiring and hunting, two Joseph Beuys pieces. The first is his classic felt suit — one of the most important works in his career — and a material that became a signature for him, the way Parmigiano-Reggiano and traditional balsamic vinegar are for me. The second is a La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, a print that shows Beuys walking with his determined gait, iconic hat, and safari vest, a comment on the many social sculptures initiated in Italy in the 1980s.

The first film we ever made for OF was an attempt to describe our creative process through the close examination of two different recipes. We called it We Are the Revolution after Beuys' conceptual premise. We still don't know if these new works will be hung at home or at the restaurant. We always say, "We don't find the art. It finds us." And in that same breath we add, "The art knows where it needs to go."

How would you define your creative process?

My inspiration comes from living in the present and from not getting too caught up in the day-to-day. I daydream a lot. I probably would have been put into the category of ADD when I was a kid. Thank goodness no one noticed or corrected this trait. I let my mind wander as often as I can and I travel through my memories, my experiences allowing my eagerness to taste life guide me. Whenever I find myself in a new place, I eat locally and seek out simple authentic food. That is how I understand a place, through my palate. When I was in China, I learned the technique of making dumplings. In Sri Lanka, curry, and in Thailand how to balance spices. All these experiences are added to my cultural baggage. They become part of me and part of my kitchen. They tell stories about my travels and experiences. I am very interested in personal cooking; not in national or regional cooking. I want to feel that the chef is there, somewhere, in that recipe, speaking to me, asking me to change my point of view.

I always suggest that young chefs read, travel, and dig as deep as they can into their culture to understand who they are and where they come from. Then and only then can they discover their true motivations, passions, and inspirations. This is what I have done over my 28-year career.

So, to answer your question, my creative process begins with the world around me, who I am, and where I come from, but everything I have read, listened to, watched, cried over, tasted, and dreamt. I often say, "learn everything, then forget everything." It is so important to fill one's suitcase with culture, books, music, literature, and art, travels, and then kitchen experience. Cooking is not manual labor but a thinking man's job. I mean, creativity is creativity. It's not throwing a piece of meat into a skillet. That is cooking. What we are trying to do requires jumping into that pan with your soul. One of the most valuable ingredients or tools in the kitchen, and one too often left behind, is the mind. If you really think about it, the only zero kilometer cooking is that which is taking place in our minds. I can dream anything or traverse continents without leaving the kitchen.

Massimo Bottura

The dish "Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano." Photo by Carlo Benvenuto.

Your dishes are conceptual and playful in nature and in name. They're Duchampian — inspired by art and experience. Would you elaborate on that?

I am actually reading a fantastic biography of Duchamp and I love the Calvin Thomas book Afternoons with Duchamp. He had his finger on the pulse long before many others. The language and the titles of my recipes are intrinsic to the ideas and stories behind them. There is Duchamp in there, but also Boetti. Words play such a big part of our world today, and maybe have since the bible, since Gutenberg's printing press. Many artists have used words as visual signifiers for other things — culture, consumerism, and identity. If you call a poached turbot with faux grilled marks "Is this a grilled turbot?" you not only create a curiosity among the diners but you begin to address other issues: How should turbot be cooked? Why is it always grilled on the Adriatic Riviera? Isn't it time we question that?

Food is nourishment not only for the body but also for the mind. Stimulate the appetite, but feed the hungry soul. Language has played a role in my kitchen since the first savory potato and onion Cappuccino, then Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich, and so on. A little bit of irony goes a long way, especially if you think about how serious and set in stone the Italian kitchen can be, which is an oxymoron in itself because the Italian kitchen is based on improvisation, yet everyone wants to write down the absolute truth. Well, it just doesn't exist. Bollito, not boiled. There you go.

What's your favorite name of one of your dishes? And your favorite name for a piece of art?

I love the way Alghiero Boetti's mind works. "Immagine e somiglianza" is the title for a series of works by the artist, but the expression also refers to most of Western art. As for my recipes, it's hard to pick just one. They have become companions over the years. Oops! I dropped the lemon tart talks about imperfection and Millefoglie di foglie addresses the importance of finding poetry in the everyday. I love the recipes because I love the ideas behind them as well as the flavors, not just the word play.

You mention Notari "Come to Italy with Me" and "tearing up the pages of the Silver Spoon." You're an Emilian chef who both throttles Italian cooking traditions for not encouraging creativity and grabs hold of other regions to shake them up. What does tradition mean to you?

Tradition is everything. It is our geography — every bell tower and church dotting the countryside. Tradition is an accumulation of human gestures. And when it comes to traditional food, then one is also addressing agriculture, artisans, territory, and identity. I do not deny traditions but work through them, never assuming they are right but always trying to respect their origins. My kitchen is probably (and ironically) the most traditional in Italy today, even if it doesn't look that way. The only way to safeguard our traditions is to let them breathe and grow and move out of the comfort zone. When they become comfort food, then there is the inevitable decline. The critical (and constructive) mind is distracted by sentiments and nostalgia, and consequently the ragu looses something magical in the process. It just becomes another routine instead of a solution to a question, an active gesture, an attempt to revive not just repeat.

Massimo Bottura

The dish "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart." Photo by Carlo Benvenuto.

You've made the Emilia Burger for Shake Shack. What are you saying about Italian food and your cuisine to Americans?

If you make an Emilia burger at home, then you will know what I am saying about American food. Good idea, but poor followthrough. What is the great weakness of any hamburger? The patty is always dry. That is why we added ground cotechino and Parmigiano-Reggiano: flavor, gelatin, and texture. Try it and see what happens to your hamburger. By adding a dollop of salsa verde instead of insipid lettuce or a pickle, we've added acidity and chlorophyll in concentration. The touch of balsamic mayonnaise rounds out the flavors and lends depth to the palate. I love America. And I love street food. Eating a hamburger in a park is one of the great joys of being in a city like New York, but if you add a little Italian zing, then wow! Wise contamination is a good thing.

Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is wonderful — a hybrid coffee table/family history/cookbook that focuses on three-dimensionalization of an idea. It's not just a cookbook or a culinary history. Where do you want to see this book?

I'd love to see the book leave the shelves and migrate to elementary schools and libraries and museums, or find a secret community under the beds of a teenage boys, like the once-coveted issues of Playboy we all collected as kids.

Many of your dishes, like Pollution, have a message. What is your overall message?

I honestly see each recipe in the context of what I learned from it or what we as a restaurant learned from making it. So recipes are little life lessons for chefs and for restaurants. I am still making them up, so I probably won't know the final message until it is too late. The career of a chef is like a puzzle. Over time the pieces fall into place and you begin to see a picture, but often it is not what you thought it would be. I began wanting desperately to be avant-garde, to break the rules and live dangerously. The more I grow and learn, the more our kitchen whispers rather than shouts. I like this reversal because I'd rather engage an audience in an idea, a flavor, a string of thoughts than shock them. Our kitchen leads you inward like a labyrinth to a place called flavor — which at times can be familiar and at times alarming. We hope unforgettable and enduring. That is what we aim for. But the real message of the book is directed at the next generation: Be like a tree. Grow slowly.