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.

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.

The genius of Bottura—who, at 52, seems like a philosopher one minute and an out-of-control schoolboy the next—lies in his ability to transcend opposites. His cooking fuses sci-fi technique and avant-garde energy with a distinct Slow Food preservationism. Bottura trained with Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià, lived in New York, collects modern art (Joseph Beuys, David Salle, his friend Maurizio Cattelan) and travels prodigiously. His inspirations are as diverse as Gertrude Stein, a New York Caesar salad, Thelonious Monk and a Bangkok coconut soup. Above all, however, he’s an Italian chef, anchored by the iconic ingredients—prosciutto, mortadella, Parmesan, balsamic vinegar—and the rich culinary traditions of his native Emilia-Romagna. “Tradition ties us to a culture and place,” Bottura says. “But it must be seen from 10 kilometers away”—meaning from a critical distance. At Francescana, “we pry, poke and question the authority of our…traditions,” he writes in his inventive new book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, a mix of recipes and memoir, with striking photography by Carlo Benvenuto and Stefano Graziani.

Tortellini is Bottura’s most autobiographical dish, each new version reflecting his own evolution. Flashback to 1967: He’s five, hiding from his bullying older brothers under the table of his maternal grandmother, Ancella. She and his aunts are folding eggy dough around pork, veal, prosciutto, mortadella and Parmigiano for a family lunch. Inhaling the smells of the simmering broth for the sauce and roast meats for the filling, Bottura felt safe and secure. “The kitchen was my refuge,” he recalls. “My grandmother’s tortellini were so beautiful, I’d steal a handful and eat them raw—they tasted like family.”

Years later, at 23, Bottura took over a roadside dive, Trattoria del Campazzo. The tortellini he served there were perfect, but Modenese diners insisted their grandmothers’ were better. Bottura began to question this uncritical grip of nostalgia. Why be tied to your ancestor’s apron strings when “a recipe is just a starting point of reflection, always evolving?”

His own tortellini evolved provocatively with a version he served at Francescana in 1998. Six dumplings were arranged on broth set with agar gelatin. A pour of hot broth melted the gelatin, so the tortellini actually moved, “walking on broth the way Christ walked on water,” Bottura says. The dish was a pointed joke, he continues: “Six teensy dumplings! My critique of the Modenese who think no pasta is ever abundant enough.”

In 2000, Bottura began working for Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. “Ferran taught me to unlock secrets of my own food traditions by breaking free of conventions,” Bottura recalls. Back in Modena, his post-Adrià tortellini were dumplings trapped inside translucent globes of “spherified” broth, like delicious, magical snowballs. But Modenese traditionalists weren’t happy, and Bottura came to understand that to be avant-garde meant “leaping forward, hitting a wall, then taking three steps back and explaining everything better a second time.”

And so he stepped back. By 2012, his tortellini experiment had taken an anthropological turn. “Tortellini,” he says “are as individual as a family’s genealogy.” The filling varies every few miles, as does the clear brodo (broth). Researching broths from the Apennines to the Adriatic, Bottura learned that some cooks add duck wings; others swear by guinea fowl carcasses. The more he inquired, the more types of animal surfaced—even eels and frogs from the Po River. The research ballooned into an oral-history project. The resulting tortellini summed up all the disparate recipes and local traditions. In the end, Bottura prepared the world’s grandest broth from eight different animals—from pig to frog—using the various meats to make tortellini with five different fillings served on a single plate. The broth packed a cosmic “barnyard” force, says Bottura. He christened the dish Noah’s Ark. “Like the Biblical boat,” he writes in his book, “a bowl of tortellini acts as a container to preserve certain northern Italian wisdom.”

When I finally sat down at Francescana, I got a lesson in the transcendent simplicity that can come after years of rethinking tradition. I tried a risotto cacio e pepe, startlingly elemental and white, misted with black pepper spray. The dish has a secret: It contains different elements of Parmesan, achieved through a complex scientific trick of separating the cheese into milky liquid, protein and fat. Bottura invented the technique after the 2012 Emilia-Romagna earthquake caused 400,000 Parmesan wheels to crash down and crack. He tweeted the risotto cacio e pepe as part of a Parmigiano-Reggiano Night fund-raiser. The tweet went viral, resulting in the sale of millions of pounds of Parmigiano, with some of the proceeds donated to earthquake victims. “Isn’t this why we cook?” muses Bottura. He features the cheese in his current tortellini rendition, served on a voluptuous crema of 24-month-old Parmigiano from Bianca Modenese cows, an heirloom breed the chef crusades to preserve.

Tortellini play a major role in Bottura’s conviction that, after the “corruption, kitsch and materialism” of the Berlusconi era, food can rescue Italy from its current identity crisis. “How can a bowl of pasta save Italy?” I ask. “Italians taste it and understand that their past can be preserved while also evolving,” Bottura replies. “A great dish can make them proud of their culture again.” I’m not surprised to hear that finally—finally—the Modenese eat these tortellini and say, “It’s better then my nonna’s.”

Recently, Bottura launched his first restaurant outside Modena, the brilliant new Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura in Istanbul, where he further refines Italian classics like osso buco. His restaurant expansion may continue, but currently Bottura seems like a man whose primary mission is to do good. He’s hard at work on the Refettorio Ambrosiano for next May’s Milan Expo. With the blessing of the city’s archdiocese—and Pope Francis himself—Bottura will take over a disused Catholic Church building in Milan where, for over a month, he will cook free meals for the poor using leftovers from other Expo pavilions. At Bottura’s invitation, the world’s greatest chefs—Alain Ducasse, Alex Atala, Mario Batali, René Redzepi and Ferran Adrià—will fly in and cook. “This will be the chefs’ way to show the young generation that we are not rock stars,” Bottura declares. “We can feed the planet with leftovers.”

Will he serve tortellini? No, but there will be passatelli, the far more elemental Emilian dumpling. “Just crumbs from leftover bread, eggs and some Parmesan,” says Bottura. “Humble local ingredients with an ethical mission.”

Anya von Bremzen is the author of five books; her latest is Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing.