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The Artist's Palate

For chef Massimo Bottura, inventing a great recipe is like creating great art: Both require a bold vision. He proves his point at a magnificent lunch.

From a distance, it looks like any other Sunday lunch in this lush (and flush) corner of Italy's Emilia-Romagna, where butter and cream fuel the kitchens and culinary time seems to stand still. The region's edible icons—Parmigiano, prosciutto—are passed around a wooden table set in the shadow of a sturdy farmhouse. Guests anoint dishes with reverential drizzles of aged balsamic vinegar.

But zoom in and a more contemporary scene emerges. Yes, there are chickens roaming about, but they're pecking around a modernist bronze sculpture by Enzo Cucchi. An old walnut tree, source of the owners' nocino liqueur, casts its shadow on a mosaic by Mimmo Paladino. The pasta may look traditional; it turns out to be anything but. The host is the legendary gallery owner Emilio Mazzoli, whose guests this afternoon include art critic Achille Bonito Oliva and members of Italy's trendiest art pack. And that guy apportioning pasta while expounding on postminimalist sculpture? He's chef Massimo Bottura, who, at his restaurant in Modena, La Francescana, is taking Italian cuisine into the twenty-first century.

Avant-garde cooking is rare in Rome and Milan, to say nothing of Modena, a model of conservative living. Cell phones here ring more softly, Ferraris seem to outnumber Vespas and an extra bay leaf in the stew is reason enough to call the carabinieri. Yet, tucked away on a narrow street, you'll find La Francescana, a beamed former stagecoach station where only the mismatched dinnerware (from Fishs Eddy in New York City) and an ever-changing display of art suggest that diners might be in for some envelope-pushing.

Not all customers get to taste Bottura's cyber-cotechino, a classic Emilian pork sausage with a not-so-traditional glaze of Lambrusco and agar gelatin that resembles glistening plastic. Bottura confides that his off-the-wall, off-the-menu items are for friends and fellow iconoclasts only. "If I served these to my regulars," he says, "they'd throw their plates in my face."

Bottura's printed menu is somewhat less provocative, but his deceptively minimalist and highly conceptual style is evident in every dish, from the onion and potato soup (in two textures and temperatures) to a "black and white" sea bass, with one side cooked in balsamic vinegar and the other in sea salt. Still, even food critics who initially ignored Bottura, then came and hissed, are beginning to recognize him as the leader of a culinary New Wave.

A scion of a patrician Modenese household, Bottura got his first cooking lessons from mamma and nonna. Yet when they instructed him on the virtues of a properly hand-minced ragù, the last thing they planned to do was turn him into a chef (a lawyer was more like it). Headstrong Bottura got his way and in 1987 launched his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo. A few years later, Alain Ducasse dropped by and was so smitten he invited Bottura to work at Louis XV in Monte Carlo. "The most important thing I learned from Ducasse," Bottura recalls, "was to clear my plates of '80s excess." At La Francescana, opened in 1995, he applies his French lessons—as well as those from a recent stint with the Catalan culinary alchemist Ferran Adrià—to reinventing the cuisine of his grandmother.

Bottura's inspirations aren't all gastronomic. In 1993 he met his wife, Lara Gilmore, then an aspiring curator in New York City. Already a compulsive collector—vinyl records, watches, 1930s Americana—Bottura plunged into contemporary art. Still, it wasn't until the couple returned to Modena and became friends with Emilio Mazzoli that Bottura started collecting seriously. "I create concepts together with my friends—artists whose work I collect," Bottura explains. A pared-down aesthetic is something he shares with Luca Pancrazzi, whose light-box sculptures of moody landscapes decorate Bottura's apartment. And he has collaborated on projects with Carlo Benvenuto, who is known for his photographs of decontextualized everyday objects such as cups and saucers.

In keeping with Bottura's ethos, the lunch he prepared in Mazzoli's garden plays tradition against innovation. An appetizer of jellied tomato juice with hot sauce­spiked cream is a wink at Americana. In his signature dish, a "deconstruction of Parmesan," a rare organic Parmigiano from a cheese farm called Hombre is shown off in three textures: a dense soufflé, a crispy shard and a silky sauce. Even the simple pasta with cherry tomatoes is a little subversive, cooked in saffron broth instead of water. (What would nonna say?) The pancetta-wrapped pork is flavored with a duet of vinegars—balsamic in the sauce (Bottura also produces his own, Villa Manodori) juxtaposed with raspberry vinegar in the accompanying marmalade.

Bonito Oliva is so taken with lunch he proposes a book of Benvenuto's photographs and Bottura's recipes, along with his own musings on food. The truth is Benvenuto has already focused his lens on a Bottura creation. Which one? The cyber-cotechino, of course.

Anya von Bremzen is the author, with John Welchman, of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook.
Published May 2001
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