To gain entry into “The World’s Best Restaurant,” I have set three alarm clocks for 1:45 a.m. Mountain Time.
It is November 1, 2018, and I must be at my laptop when the reservation lines open at 10 a.m. in Italy, for lunches and dinners in February, three months hence.
Ten thousand people will be competing against me, all of them (or their underlings) salivating at their laptops at ungodly hours in Paris, London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Moscow, Tokyo, and other cities, eager to steal my dream and snatch up the few precious seats. Twelve tables. Open five days a week. Serving only 28 to 30 diners per lunch and dinner.
For five years, I’ve come up a loser. My charm offensive, such as it is, proved to be useless. Contacts irrelevant. Finally, I realized: basic computer skills are what it takes to gain entry. So the night before, as instructed, I logged on to the restaurant’s Web site, powered by the Denmark-based reservations platform Dine Superb, to find it seemingly near the crashing point.
“A queue is activated automatically once users capacity limit is reached,” the computer screen coolly read.
At bedtime, I am around No. 140 in the queue. After a few hours of fitful sleep, the alarm clocks jolt me awake to a nightmare. “You are currently #964 in the booking queue,” the screen informs.
“You are currently#964 in the booking queue,” the screen informs.
I ring the restaurant in a panic. “Pazienza, signore!” a consoling voice advises, explaining that an Internet-connection issue might be the cause of my tragic slide backward and adding the part about the 10,000 competitors online alongside me. Queue numbers spin like the wheels of some crazy slot machine: the 900s soon turn to the 600s, and the 500s, then all the way down to the promised land of the 100s. By sunrise, the numbers are rapidly descending, and by eight a.m., after six hours of determination and true grit, the jackpot.
A “Reservations Page” suddenly fills the screen, live little boxes each representing an available date in February. Frantic fingers race across the keyboard. Date selected, details registered. An e-mail floats in, seemingly from heaven, picturing the osteria’s madcap genius, Chef Massimo Bottura, a bearded angel in white, flashing a sly grin in front of his restaurant:
Thank you very much for reserving a table at Osteria Francescana.
We are glad to confirm your reservation for 2 persons on Tuesday February 26, 2019 at 8:00 PM
“Where I come from, there are fast cars and slow food,” Massimo Bottura once said of his hometown of Modena, near Bologna. “It’s where Ferrari, Maserati, Ducati, Lamborghini are all built. But it’s also a place where they grow balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano, ham and mortadella. It’s an incredible place and I have a big responsibility to the region.”
In 1995, he left behind the kitchens of his training—including high priest Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV restaurant in the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Ferran Adrià’s ethereal El Bulli in Spain—to concentrate on his osteria in Modena with his American wife, Lara Gilmore. First struggle, then lightning: on specially designed plates, the culinary equivalent of Picasso meeting Pollock, inspired by love, life, literature, and jazz. Bottura initially shocked and insulted Modena’s local status quo with his daring remakes on Modenese staples. Dishes were named “Tortellini Walking on Broth!,” “Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich!,” “All the Tongues of the World.” “They wanted me dead,” Bottura said.
“Tortellini Walking on Broth!”
God-like status arrived in 2012, with the Bologna-area earthquakes. Along with 27 lives lost, the catastrophe damaged 360,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, threatening to decimate the local cheese industry, until Bottura conjured a parmigiano-based risotto recipe that was shared around the world and helped save local producers from bankruptcy. By then, the stars had begun falling—three from Michelin—and the critics raved. “Blown away,” Ruth Reichl wrote, echoing the sentiment of many.
In 2016, the ultimate accolade: “The World’s Best Restaurant,” a somewhat controversial title sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna and owned and organized by the U.K.-based William Reed Business Media. Each year, an “Academy” of 1,000 voters worldwide—chefs, food writers, gourmets—select their 10 favorites, 4 outside their home region. The results are unveiled in an awards ceremony, first in London, now Singapore, in what has become known as “the Oscars of the culinary world.”
After slipping to No. 2 in 2017, Bottura’s creation “leads the world once again,” reads the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Web site, the now famous chef weaving “a range of narratives through his dishes,” which defy tradition, expectation, gravity, and taste.
Thus, on the night of my dinner, Osteria Francescana still held the title of The World’s Best Restaurant.
Hell Is Other Diners
A cobblestone street in a residential neighborhood of Modena. A terra-cotta-colored wall festooned with brass international culinary awards. It’s 7:45 on a Tuesday night, and the street in front of the osteria is filled with champions who, like me, have outwitted the multitudes by computer to score a table.
A family of four seemingly suburban Germans. Two frisky French lovers. A Chinese beauty, tragically ignored by her date, a sour-faced businessman who won’t look up from his phone all night (except when eating and drinking). An all-male, Norway-based “eating club,” gastro-tourists with lanyards slung around their necks, studded with the logos of three-star restaurants they’ve visited. “We have been dreaming about this restaurant for five years now,” says one. “He’s a hero among chefs, and three of us are chefs. Next year, we try for Spain, El Celler de Can Roca.” (No. 2 on the 2018 World’s Best list, near Barcelona.)
At precisely eight p.m., the door swings open. A line of young men in black stand in the foyer, their leader checking off names on his iPad. Once cleared, we are silently ferried to our tables as if headed to meet God. He is here, even though He is absent—away in L.A. to cater an Oscar party, I am told. Still, every little touch and nuance is the chef’s creation, channeled through his sous chef, Davide di Fabio.
Big tables draped in white, no more than 12 tables, in three rooms. Cool jazz wafts over serene gray walls, filled with arty little pictures and photographs. The wine list lands with a thud: 177 pages. Then the menu: the waiter suggests the Festina Lente, a seasonal offering of the chef’s latest, greatest hits, its name Latin for “Make Haste Slowly.” (Ten courses for $284 dollars.) A flurry of plates begins arriving, borne by an army of efficient young men and women. I look around the room. Where’s the party? This is like a church. Aside from the French lovers, who momentarily sword fight with their ultra-long Osteria breadsticks, everyone is silent, pious, in communion with their food.
The wine list lands with a thud: 177 pages.
Each dish is a little miracle in appearance, taste, and name. Endless starters: fois gras macarons. Oblong somethings with the skin and taste of sardine. Then, the stars: “An Eel Swimming up the Po River,” a caramelized strip of eel swimming between undulating smears of sauce. “Camouflage Rice,” an impossible collage of Technicolor risotto. “The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna.” (Who needs the rest?) “Suckling Pig, Tender and Crunchy.” “Caesar Salad in Bloom,” with flowers, herbs, and lettuces in the shape of a small bird that seems about to levitate off the plate, comprising, I’m told, 27 different elements. Foams and flourishes and finally, at extra cost, “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart,” created by the chef when a butterfingered sous chef dropped a lemon tart on the kitchen counter and inspired a Cubist dessert classic.
Followed by horror: It’s all about to be … over.
What do I think? Oh, my God, I am loving every second! The Seal table, party of two, is a rollicking festival of food and fun. But then, as in all great things, the end is near, and even after three and a half hours, it’s coming all too soon. I feel my heart expanding, way beyond my stomach. Chef Massimo Bottura, the culinary alchemist who learned “to unlock feeling in food,” as the British writer Allan Jenkins put it, has unlocked something profound in me. I am suddenly overcome with emotion, with a feeling of joy. I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to dance on the table. I wanted to grab a bottle of Barolo and spin doughnuts through the cobblestone streets with Chef Massimo at the wheel of his vintage Maserati.
I want to scream at the smug faces around me, “We are in The Best Restaurant in the Fucking World! What are your names? What are your thoughts? What paths brought you here? And where can we go from here?”
I want to howl at the moon until the sun rises up over Modena, and then slay that damned reservations computer all over again and return for a second dinner at Osteria Francescana.
But I only pay the hefty bill, rise from the table, and, along with everyone else, file back into the street, back to normalcy. I think I am the last to leave. Not one person at any of the tables in our room had said one word to the other.
A few months later, on June 25, the impossible news: the King is dethroned! Osteria Francescana would not be crowned The World’s Best Restaurant for the third time—only because of a new rule barring previous winners from eligibility. Instead, it and other previous No. 1s are honored in a “Best of the Best” category.
The 2019 winner?
Mirazur, the French Riviera seaside marvel run by the Argentinean maestro Chef Mauro Colagreco.
Reservations, I hear, are next to impossible.
Mark Seal is a writer based in Aspen.