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 iconsParmigiano, prosciuttoare 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.