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Dinner by Italian chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana

March 11, 2013|By S. Irene Virbila
  • Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena
Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena (Paolo Terzi, Modena )

Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena cooked at an extraordinary private dinner in Bel Air last night. He is widely considered Italy's greatest chef. The French  have awarded him three Michelin stars and he placed number five (the highest ranking Italian chef)  on last year's World's 50 Best Restaurants list sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.

Bottura was in town to celebrate Italian cuisine as part of the Italian government's "Year of Italian Culture." With all that’s going wrong in Italy right now, the chef said, he was excited to be part of something positive. "Culture is at the heart of the Italian kitchen, and the kitchen is at the heart of your culture. It is expressed in each and every culinary tradition and singular ingredient from Sicily to Piedmont."

The menu Bottura created around the theme "Come to Italy with us" was filled with fantasy, soul and sheer wizardry. The dinner was presented three times — in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Los Angeles. The menu wasn't necessarily the same as what he would do in Modena, where 28 in the kitchen cook for 28 guests. Here, he had just two or three cooks from his team in Italy. But he managed. Boy, did he manage.

What he sent out was just right — not too much, beautifully thought out, wildly delicious — and light-hearted fun. The lighting was too low to take photos of the food without a flash, so I’ll just have to describe some of the dishes.

The amuse captivated everyone right away. Bottura’s idea was to riff on Sicily and so he made an exquisite almond granita (from the notoriously delicious almonds from Noto) dotted with bits of caper, candied bergamot, coffee, capers and vanilla bean salt. Each bite was just slightly sweet, lit up with that spark of salt or spice. The wine was a Donnafugata Lighea Zibibbo from the island of Pantelleria between Sicily and North Africa. This white is beautifully aromatic (Zibibbo is a form of Muscat) — and dry, really perfect with the granita -- and the fish course that came next.

That was a salt cod dish, i.e. baccalà. The rich, flaky salt cod sat, in Bottura’s words, "on an island of dried tomato and almond pesto surrounded by the gulf of Naples — a Vesuvian tomato and green olive broth infused with lemons, wild oregano and extra virgin olive oil." The broth was so silky and light, yet had an intensity that was astonishing.

An eel course followed, which gathered ingredients along the Po River — polenta, apples, onions. Cooked sous vide, the eel was lacquered in Amarone from Verona and served with a subtle puree of the other ingredients — and of course, a 2007 Masi Riserva di Costasera Amarone della Volpolicella.

The dish that I just wanted to eat and eat was a very plain looking risotto, a spin on the classic Roman spaghetti cacio e pepe, created by Bottura in response to the May 2012 earthquakes in Emilia, which caused nearly 400,000 huge wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano to tumble and crack open. To make his cacio e pepe, he simmered Vialone Nano rice in Parmigiano broth. No butter, cream or other fat was added. The result: each grain of rice was suffused with the essence of Parmigiano. The pepe? A distillate of black pepper, which the chef sprayed over each dish at the table. This one was served with a sparkling wine from Franciacorta: Berlucchi ’61. Another terrific match.

The meat course was amazing looking, veal cooked sous vide and then painted and splashed in carnival colors of red (a Brunello reduction), white (potato puree) and green (chlorophyll). I’m sure it was more complicated than that, but however he did it, it worked seamlessly with the 2008 Marchesi de' Frescobaldi Castel Giocanda Brunello di Montalcino.

Last, a tiramisù, but what a tiramisù. It seemed to have come from another, ethereal world, with a chilled coffee mousse at the center, and ruffles of cream that would do any 16th century grandee proud. A sip of Passito di Pantelleria, the sweet wine from Donnafugata in Sicily. A sip of espresso. The stars and the night, and a view across the lawn of the city spread out below.

I saw from the chef’s Twitter feed (@massimobottura) that Sylvester Stallone, who was also a guest, had slipped into the kitchen at some point during the dinner. I wish I’d done the same.

For anyone thinking of going to Modena to eat at Osteria Francescana, be sure to reserve well ahead. Remember the restaurant only has 28 seats — not tables.

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Twitter.com/sirenevirbila

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