While most are well acquainted with Nonna’s cooking, there is another side to Italian food, and no one exemplifies that side better than three Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura. He is the Italian chef, as famous for his infectious charisma as his world-renowned dishes that exalt his own local Modenese traditions and celebrate local products from Reggio Emilia. Tortellini in brodo, Parmigiano Reggiano (the real deal Parmesan cheese), and Balsamic Vinegar are abundant at his restaurant Osteria Francescana, found in the heart of Modena and known as one of the best restaurants worldwide. Bottura and team continue to break the boundaries of Italian cooking, redefining what Italian and Modenese cooking can be. And that’s just the beginning. Massimo and his wife, Lara Gilmore, created a country bed and breakfast where foodie fans like you and me get to immerse ourselves in the chef’s world day and night. I went there for an overnight trip and indulged in dinner, breakfast, and all of the pleasures in between à la Massimo and Lara.
Just outside of quaint Modena, Casa Maria Luigia is a wonderfully renovated country estate filled with contemporary art carefully curated by the couple. To call it a b&b wouldn’t do it justice. It is a living space where you can listen to Massimo’s never-ending collection of vinyl records, it is a large table where friends gather to play backgammon, it is a kitchen where you make your own tea and cocktails, and so much more. We felt like dear friends of Massimo and Lara’s, hanging out in the intimate and cozy living spaces. We even ran into Lara riding her bike and had numerous opportunities to chat with Massimo. Our spacious bedroom was stocked with complimentary Parmigiano Reggiano, of course, and our balcony was flanked by whimsical ice cream cone sculptures.
Every detail makes you feel right at home at the playful country estate, but the real reason to stay is for the food, starting with the dinner experience: Francescana at Maria Luigia. Dinner is served in an industrial-style space with an open kitchen providing views to the kitchen from almost every seat. Originally realized with community tables (pre-Covid), the restaurant boasts a 9-course tasting menu featuring ground-breaking, historic dishes from Osteria Francescana, and a chance to watch Massimo work. His creative energy and passion for what he does absolutely animates the entire dining room.
The Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures is a tender tribute to an ingredient dear to the Reggio Emilia region. The five preparations of cheese combine sauce, cream, crunch, foam, and air, but the contrast that fascinates the chef most are the different tastes that come from the different months of aging, from 24 to 50 months. The varied temperatures are a play on the historic French chaud-froid concept (hot and cold), and the result is rich yet balanced, thanks to the harmony of contrasting textures, temperatures, and aged cheese.
The Tortellini in Parmigiano cream sauce is surprisingly light. They are a classic filled pasta from Emilia, extensively written about here. Massimo takes tortellini above and beyond, cooking them in “Parmigiano water” made from a lengthy process of separating the cheese. The ragù stole the show. So much so that we wanted more the next day, and without hesitation we added it to the already 12+ course tasting menu at Osteria Francescana for lunch. It was worth it! Pieces of veal, pig, and oxtail are seared and braised in broth with a little tomato, respecting the Emilian tradition, and the meat is cut into cubes before serving. We asked for as many details as we could, and have been working on perfecting our homemade version ever since. After dinner, we retired to the cozy cocktail room, where we chose from the many digestives, rums, and other liquors. A nightcap and a few games of backgammon later, we were off to bed, all dreaming of Parmigiano Reggiano.
In the morning, we were greeted with smells of sausage, butter, and fried dough. Breakfast was just as elaborate as dinner: Modenese gnocco fritto con la mortadella (fried dough with slices meat) and il cotechino con sbriciolona ricoperta di zabaione con aceto balsamico (sausage on a crumble covered with zabaione cream and balsamic vinegar) filled the table. The Modenese chef at the buffet told us that he eats his gnocco fritto and mortadella by dipping it into his morning cappuccino. Even tastier, the cotechino was a perfect balance of salty and sweet flavors, made extra rich by the creamy zabaione. Thankfully the portion size was just right so that we could enjoy Osteria Francescana’s 12-course lunch that day.
From the moment we arrived at Casa Maria Luigia, all of our expectations were met tenfold by the remarkably dedicated team of chefs, waiters, and hotel staff. The experience was intimate; we felt like we were in the Bottura’s home, where the chef’s contagious energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and thirst for knowledge are on display. An overnight trip is a must for any foodie, and two nights will give you the opportunity to delight in all of the joys of Casa Maria Luigia as well as enjoy the nearby sites of Modena.