Franceschetta58 – Modena, Italy

Massimo Bottura is a cool man. Of course, coolness is subjective; he’s my idea of cool. Thick rimmed glasses, grey stubble, short curly hair. More importantly, an indefatigable appetite for life, an authentic passion for his trade, and a commitment to improving the lives of those around him make him stand out. 

I first heard of Bottura watching the Netflix series Chef’s Table, the peerless documentary series showcasing the lives and foods of the world’s greatest chefs. The first episode told the story of the charismatic Italian, whose attempts at modernising Italian cuisine had initially been met with considerable suspicion by food traditionalists, which in Italy means pretty much everyone.

What impressed me most, however, was not his mouthwatering, creative dishes, more artistic than anything I’d seen before. It was his personality and, more than anything, his dedication to making people happy. The episode’s opening scene showed the devastating earthquake that struck northern Italy in 2012, killing 27 and causing untold damage to, among other things, millions of pounds worth of Parmesan cheese. Bottura helped raise awareness and showcased the local, world-famous, cheese in his food, providing the industry with a recovery boost.

Osteria Francescana, the tiny, unpretentious restaurant that in 2016 was named best in the world, is Bottura’s baby. Having worked in New York and Paris, bastions of fine dining, Bottura chose to come home, to Modena, home of Pavarotti and Ferrari, to open his own place. A local museum guide told me how proud she was of Bottura’s decision.

Francescana is set in the heart of Modena, a beautiful town just north of Bologna. While travelling through northern Italy I dreamt of going there. Sadly, unlike Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim in the latest series of Netflix’s Master of None, I couldn’t afford the €220 price for a nine-course tasting menu.

Bottura, however, is dedicated to providing quality food to everyone. In the 2016 Olympics he helped turn food waste into meals for Rio’s homeless, a project repeated this year in London. He also has a far more affordable option, just outside Modena’s historic centre. It’s still pricey, and portions are small, but my god is it good.

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Franceschetta58 offers Michelin-star quality food for a fraction of the price. I opted for the lunch menu, a reasonable €25 for three courses. The restaurant is laid back and casual. Daft Punk lyrics adorn the walls while James Brown and Stevie Wonder provided the soundtrack. Attractive French waitresses glide between tables handing out cutlery in old watering cans. It veers perilously close to faux hipster pretension but nevertheless retains an authentic vibe, probably due to Bottura’s personality, or my idea of it at least.

Picking a highlight from the meal is tough; almost everything I ate was top quality. Is it even okay to choose the bread? Seriously, that focaccia. I tried a lot of focaccia during my 10 days in Italy, it was my go-to snack. This was next level: perfectly spongy texture, just the right amount of oil, salt and air. If this was the only thing I was served I still would’ve given Franceschetta a positive review.

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Emilia burger

For starters I opted for one of Bottura’s famous creations, the Emilia burger, named after the local region, Emilia-Romagna, which produces so much of Italy’s world-famous produce (parmesan, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, bolognese, mortadella, the list goes on). It’s small, and by small I mean small; a slider rather than a burger, a small one at that. The patty is a delightful mixture of pork, beef and parmesan, and the cheese really shines through. It was rare, just how a good burger should be. The salsa verde, mostly parsley, provided a fresh balance to the meat. But the balsamic reduction was slightly overpowering; it was the only (very minor) negative. The burger was still great, and tasted especially good paired with a local red Sangiovese.

Next came the party piece, a perfectly-grilled octopus, each sucker, not an enticing term, housing a pool of olive oil. It was good, but even better when eaten with the fried cauliflower perched alongside it, which tasted almost of crispy seaweed. The accompanying cauliflower and smoked oil mousse was divine.

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Grilled octopus 

I probably wouldn’t have ordered the only dessert on offer, but I’m bloody glad I was cornered into it. It was a sensational coffee and orange cream, with crumbled chocolate biscuits and raspberries. I finished with a coffee and a surprisingly pocket-friendly bill of €35.

Have Italians accepted Bottura’s experimentation with traditional Italian cuisine? It seems so, everyone I spoke to in Modena about him was rightly proud. There were Italians there, but over half the clientele were foreign, mostly French and American. Franceschetta58 is certainly worth a visit. Hell, I basically went to Italy to go there. Of course, we’d all like to be able to visit its big brother, hopefully one day I will. But the more accessible version allows the rest of us to see just why an excitable Italian from Modena has become one of the world’s most celebrated chefs.

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Bar Nestor – San Sebastian

I fell in love with San Sebastian last year during a two-day trip. The long, sandy beaches, surrounding mountains and elegant avenues make for a beautiful, unique city. It looks a bit like Rio de Janeiro, complete with a giant Jesus atop Monte Urgull, overlooking the Old Town

Food is the main reason why I like Donostia, as its known in Basque, so much. The Basque Country is famous for its cuisine, from simple, homely fare to some of the world’s finest, and most experimental, restaurants. New Basque Cuisine, modern, innovative cooking influenced by France, emerged in the 1970s, and Arzak, with three Michelin stars, is its most famous proponent.

But visitors to San Sebastian don’t need deep pockets to try an array of mouthwatering dishes. Pintxos, small tapas-like snacks available at every bar, are affordable and always delicious. They can feature almost anything, whether its seafood, cheese, fish, meat or peppers and other vegetables.

Then there is Txuleton, which can be found at many Old Town restaurants. The huge cuts of steak come from old cows, usually past their milking lives, often up to 17 years old; in Britain, most of the beef we eat is two-and-a-half years old.

Twelve months ago, two friends and I stopped by Bar Nestor, a tiny, atmospheric bar in the heart of the Old Town. Football and rugby shirts signed by Basque stars adorn the walls. There are two tables, most people have to make do with a spot at the bar or standing outside.

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Bar Nestor

Last year the beef was sold out by the time we arrived, admittedly rather late. The staff apologised, and gave us free drinks to accompany our superb padrón peppers. I vowed that one day I would return.

Last week I returned to the Basque country with my mother, and I made sure Bar Nestor was our first stop. Again, it was crowded on the Friday night we arrived, but it was third time lucky the next day.

Bar Nestor serves only five dishes: txuletonpadrón peppers, tomatoes, tortillas, twice daily, and cured meats. We walked past the restaurant at 11.30am and found Nestor cleaning up inside. Through this chance encounter we discovered the tortilla, reserved a piece, and returned at 1pm.

The tortilla, sold out within minutes, was unquestionably the best I’ve ever had. No longer can I countenance a dry, bland tortilla; Nestor’s tortilla oozed with eggy, potatoey, salty goodness, it’s a pity we couldn’t have more.

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Nestor’s tortilla

We followed the tortilla with an order of steak, tomatoes and peppers, accompanied by a fine Rioja and local beer. A waiter emerged with two brick-sized cuts of steak; we chose the larger. The tomatoes arrived first. They were fresh, doused in the finest olive oil and lots of salt, and served alongside fresh, crunchy bread. The peppers emerged, cooked to perfection, before the party piece arrived.

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Rarely do things live up to the hype, but old cows certainly do. The meat, cooked rare, was dark and rich; the fat is almost orange, and more flavoursome than normal beef. My mother’s first reaction was a fit of hysterics; good steak brings out the strangest reactions. But it really was the best steak I’ve had this side of the Atlantic, and, at around £30 per kilo, good value.

Bar Nestor has become very touristy, a victim of its own success. If visiting on a weekend night, there will be long waits, and it may not even be possible to get served. But it is definitely worth persevering, because, despite its simplicity, it serves some of the best food around.

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