Italian philosopher-chef Massimo Bottura bridges past and future, folklore and post-molecularism. Writer Anya von Bremzen traces it all back to his autobiographical tortellini.
As I ate Massimo Bottura’s tortellini at his Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, I wondered how so much history, so many layers of flavor, so much research could be packed into such dumplings so tiny. A second bite of those hand-shaped tortellini—with a complex multi-meat filling and velvety crema of profoundly aged Parmesan—had me marveling that a dumpling could bridge past and future, folklore and post-molecularism, and act as a commentary on Italian culture. All while tasting this good.
I first met Bottura and his American wife, Lara Gilmore, in 1998, a few years after he opened Francescana. At the arty neo-trattoria with mismatched Fishs Eddy plates, the excitable chef was provoking Modena’s hyper-conservative taste buds. Bottura’s wild creativity has since earned him three Michelin stars and a sweet No. 3 spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Last summer, when he picked me up at the Modena train station, I found him on his cell phone discussing the visionary soup kitchen he’s planning for next year’s Milan Expo. “The pope! Papa Francesco! He blessed our project,” hooted Bottura. Then he shouted, “But we’re totally full!” into his phone; the office of Italy’s agriculture minister had called for a table.