Modena, Italy

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Anthony Lanneretonne

I'm a reasonably suggestible sort of guy as far as eating out is concerned. I don't need the arm twisted far before I'll agree to drive to the other side of town or walk over the next hill on the promise of a better bite. If you want to order the whole bottle, get a second crab or polish off that entire leg of ham at the bar, I'm your guy. Even so, backing up dinner at a three-star with lunch at the same table barely 12 hours later is a new one, even for me. But that's Modena. It's a magical sort of place.

Let's rewind a bit. Take us back nearly a thousand years and we'd be present at the founding of the University of Modena, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the world. It was probably not long before this that a local first observed the delicious transformation that took place when saba - cooked-down grape juice - was left to ferment for a long time in the conditions unique to the area and aceto tradizionale di Modena, aka balsamic vinegar, was discovered.

A little over 100 years ago, one Enzo Ferrari was born here, and it was in Modena that he founded Scuderia Ferrari, the Ferrari team stable. Remembered as a very reserved and traditional Italian, he rarely left the city in later life - except, of course, to attend the Grand Prix at Monza every year. In more recent decades you might have been lucky enough to hear the city's most famous artist singing in the shower as you walked down the street. It was here that Luciano Pavarotti, the most famous tenor of our age, was born to a baker, and Modena remained the city he called home until he died.

Which brings us back to the present day. It's lunchtime, and a gentle hush has fallen over the city. Bees drowse, birds tweet, the air is heavy with the scent of ragù on the stove and the sound of soaps on the TV. Tour groups and buses are notable by their absence. There's no race to be anywhere, no queue to do anything. Later in the day will come la passeggiata, and with it well-dressed Modenese gents walking the streets with yellow handkerchiefs and slow dignity.

It's a surprisingly quiet and untouristed town. Caught between Parma and Bologna, and framed at a further remove by Milan, Florence and Venice, it's a daytrip or a detour, but seldom a destination in the way of its neighbours. But for those who put eating first on their holiday to-do list, however, Modena might just be Italy's new food capital.

The Modenese are known to be fond of their food, even by Italian standards. This is some of the richest farming country in the world. Travellers flying in to Bologna, the nearest hub, are greeted by a terminal filled with salumi and cheeses; even the crackers in the vending machines come with DOC Parmigiano-Reggiano. The fields around Modena are heavy with wheat and corn, the trees and vines laden with cherries and grapes. In addition to balsamic vinegar, this is the home of Lambrusco, of prosciutto di Modena (prosciutto di Parma is just up the road). The stunning Culatello di Zibbibo. Zampone, the sausage-like pig's trotter stuffed with spiced pork shoulder, skin and cheek traditionally served with lentils at New Year, is a local dish, and Modena also has its own, rather different pesto, which is made by pounding together rosemary, garlic and lard. It's a traditional accompaniment to that other local favourite, the flat hotcakes known as tigelle.

There's also a good chance that pasta you eat in the region of Emilia-Romagna will be the best you'll ever try. The region's long prosperity can be seen in its cooks' generosity with egg yolks in the dough, and with the butter that often dresses the finished noodles. The result is pasta that's strikingly golden and supple, and it makes everything else seem like so much flour and water.

At the pristine Mercato Albinelli, Modena's central market, boxes of bright green frying peppers nestle next to purple artichokes and deeply ridged tomatoes. There's cime di rapa of a quality we can only dream of outside Italy, pristine chicory and bundles of agretti, the grass-like green that's sold as monk's beard in England. Cheeses and sausage are stacked high and fragrant, and the quality of the seafood on show is exceptional, not least for a town this far inland.

All this walking very slowly, pointing at vegetables and cooing at fruit can work up a body's appetite. All the more reason, then, for calling in at Bar Schiavoni, one of the better sandwich shops in the free world. It's a tiny place, but it packs a punch. For a euro you get two little squares of focaccia sandwiching mortadella, stracciatella cheese, rucola and - this is where the genius comes in - toasted almonds. Or it could be Piedmontese-style vitello tonnato with olives, capers and artichoke. Or sardines, green olive, tomato, orange and balsamico. A coffee is less than €2, a glass of Lambrusco not much more than that. The sandwich the Fantoni sisters do with fried cotechino sausage and a smear of salsa verde is just about as good as it gets.

Walk on, observe the bella figura in action. Around the market cluster handsome dogs, and cyclists texting, humming and flirting. A man sits smoking a pipe.

Stroll the city's lanes and avenues. Poke around Vintage de Luxe or Daniel Vintage for pre-loved Cavalli and Hermès. Cicero wrote in his Philippics that the city was beautiful, and it remains so today. Its centre is medieval and well cared for, its fringes leafy. On Friday nights its squares and streets fill with dapper locals, clinking glasses of Franciacorta at Caffè Concerto, the bar overlooking the cathedral on the Piazza Grande, or drinking beer under the trees on the Largo Hannover.

You won't see that many examples of the work of Ferrari, Maserati or Lamborghini on the streets of Modena (though their cousin Ducatti is much in evidence), but the horsepower faithful flock in droves to the Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari. Here is the story of the man and his machines told with the help of 20 vintage motors. They're housed in a striking streamlined yellow shell that closely echoes the lines of the modern-day racing car, and constructed around the building in which Ferrari was born.

But we're not here for the cars. We're here for a restaurant. You could call it the restaurant. It's certainly having a moment; The New Yorker devoted 10 pages to it in November, intimating that it had reconciled the words "Italy" and "new gastronomy".

In January its personnel were on the cover of cult Swedish food magazine Fool, re-enacting scenes from Fellini's . It sits at third position in The World's 50 Best Restaurants, the highest an Italian restaurant has ever placed. It's Osteria Francescana, and it's truly one of a kind.

Its chef and owner, Massimo Bottura, is a singular sort of fellow, as inspired by Bob Dylan and Thelonious Monk when he's creating dishes as he is by the bounty of his home region. "An Eel Swimming Up the Po River", he explains, tells the story of the House of Este's move from Ferrara to Modena through the medium of eel lacquered with Amarone and grape must, a cream of polenta and a slash of apple.

What saves this sort of thing from drowning in preciousness is partly the intensity of Bottura's delivery - he's frequently seen in the dining rooms, his New Balance sneakers barely touching the ground as he extemporises, the ideas jostling and tumbling on top of each other as they rush from his mouth - but mostly the simple fact of the dishes' deliciousness. Whether he's doing a bollito misto that involves no boiling, or recreating memories of a mortadella sandwich in a whipped cream-like spume served with focaccia, no matter how brave the experiment, he doesn't lose the dishes' essential savour. With Bottura, things are almost always gained in translation.

You don't need a working knowledge of the Papal States to get the joke with "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart", a superb lemon tart presented as though it's had a mishap on the way from the kitchen to the table. Part of the reason I wanted to come to the restaurant twice was to see both sides of its menu. One trips around Italy in a whirlwind of ideas, while the other looks to the traditions of the region. Bottura counts Ferran Adrià and Alain Ducasse among his mentors; the other is his mother. You can see their various influences as you work your way through a dazzling line-up that comprises dishes as straightforward as a plate of sliced 42-month-old culatello and as baroque as a miniature Magnum fashioned from foie gras, with a liquid balsamic centre.

Sommelier Giuseppe Palmieri doesn't drop a stitch in 20 courses, and the rooms have a quiet lustre enlivened by modern artworks, their selection one of the many contributions of Bottura's American-born wife and collaborator, Lara Gilmore. Rare is the Italian restaurant showing pieces by Gavin Turk and Gregory Crewdson, let alone a Matthew Barney in the men's room.

Bottura calls one of the stunning versions of tortellini he offers "a historical compromise", explaining that the tradition of serving tortellini in a creamy sauce had been debased by lazy chefs, mass production and shelf-stable cream. Purists now insist that it be served only in capon broth; in Bottura's version the traditional egg pasta filled with veal, prosciutto, mortadella and parmesan are cooked in said broth, but served with a sauce of 36-month-old Parmigiano and water made in a Thermomix. It's creamy, but it's made without the addition of heavy cream or butter, and the nubbins of tortellini themselves are faultless. If there's a dish that would-be Italian innovators could use as a blueprint for tradition freed of the bonds of nostalgia, this is it.

Beyond the centre of town, Bottura also has a second, much more casual restaurant. Franceschetta58 is fast and fun, the atmosphere convivial and the food hearty. Here you're more likely to encounter rabbit with rapa or a salad of oranges and fennel scattered with bottarga than anything inspired by a conversation between Picasso and Gertrude Stein. It's not exactly traditional, but it's very good and very well priced, with the dishes clocking in around €8.50 (a main course at Francescana, by contrast, is in the vicinity of €60, and the tasting menus start at €130).

Trattoria Bianca, Bottura's top pick for the classic bourgeois cooking of Modena, meanwhile, is a true gem. It's a friendly place, and the tableside service from the waistcoated staff is a considerable drawcard. The culatello, mortadella and prosciutto are served with gnocco fritto, airy pillows of fried dough, and a preserve of sour cherries from Vignola. The gnoccho fritto basket is refreshed as you go, all the better to accentuate the contrast of the hot pastries with the cool ribbons of meat and the sour-sweet fruit. Stunning. The tortellini, small and perfectly formed in their bath of broth, are an essential highlight.

For a Saturday lunch favourite, Bottura picks Ristorante Aurora.

It specialises in the seafood cooking of the south; grilled ventresca, the cut of tuna belly the Japanese call chu-toro, with cherry tomatoes, capers and black olives, say, or spaghetti with scampi and flakes of the flatfish known as rombo. Small, sweet mussels and true vongole come bathed in a buttered garlic broth we sup with a spoon. There's a fine fritto misto of cuttlefish, calamari rings and thumbnail-sized squid, their hoods puffy, the tentacles crisp, all eaten with fingers.

There's plenty to see in the immediate vicinity; Bologna is an easy daytrip on the train for a plate of tagliatelle Bolognese and a wander, but if you want to keep things more local, consider a trip to Spilamberto, about 10 clicks out of town, to see the balsamic vinegar museum. It's here that you truly get a sense of what a strange and magical product this is, and why outsiders were so mystified by it. In its ageing rooms stand casks of cherry and oak, juniper, mulberry and acacia. It's the aging that the vinegar undergoes in the various barrels that's the key to a process begun with the juice of trebbiano grapes boiled down to a third of its original volume. The transfer from barrel to barrel, which winemakers know as solera, is aided and nuanced, locals say, by the particulars of the region's climate, just as humidity and other environmental factors are considered part of the secret of the famed prosciutto of Parma and San Daniele. Dip a spoon into some of the treacle-like very old stuff, the vinegar that has been ageing for 50, 70 or even 100 years, and the depth and length of flavour is extraordinary. You're left in no doubt you're tasting history.

Bottura suggests a visit to Hombre dairy as one of the best ways to get a sense of Modena's twin passions. The Panini family made their money in stickers (football stickers in particular) and this beautifully appointed farm is their pride and joy. Modena, along with the provinces of Reggio Emilia and Parma, is one of the only places where true Parmigiano-Reggiano may be made, and at Hombre you'll meet some of the best looked-after cows in the world. If you're lucky enough to get a peek inside the ageing room, you can see robots gently turning wheels of cheese in eye-crossing and seemingly infinite aisles of some of the finest parmesan in Italy, not to mention the corner where sits the special selection that the dairy ages to extreme lengths for Bottura.

And then there's the barn. Flanked by ancient tractors bearing the marque of Lamborghini, it houses the collection of rare and unique sports cars built by the late Umberto Panini. It's a dazzling array of the works of Maserati, as well as some by Ferrari and Lamborghini. This is where Bottura brought the Francescana family to throw a party when the restaurant was awarded its third Michelin star. Chefs arrived from all over Italy bearing food, like the world's greatest pot-luck dinner. His favourite memory of the night, he says, was seeing the prime minister of Angola, someone's random plus-one, getting down to James Brown. But that's Modena. It's a magical sort of place.

The nearest major airport is Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport, then it's a 40-minute journey by airport bus or 20 minutes by fast train. Modena is also served by rail links to Rome and other Italian capitals.

Quartopiano Bed & Breakfast de Charme
Small, yet appointed with a contemporary eye for style and comfort, this B&B is the natural choice for building a trip around a meal at nearby Osteria Francescana. Rooms from $140 per night. Via Bonacorsa 27.

Canalgrande Hotel
In the old-school mode, the Canalgrande is a place of faded glory, but its public spaces retain some grandeur. It's very central and the staff is pleasant. Rooms from about $200 per night. Corso Canal Grande 6.

Bar Schiavoni
Sara and Chiara Fantoni's stewardship of this classic little café has made it a must for sandwich fanciers of every stripe. Via Luigi Albinelli 13, +39 059 243 073.

Caffè Concerto
More one for the charm of its setting on the Piazza Grande, overlooking the Romanesque cathedral, than the specialness of its food. Piazza Grande 26, +39 059 222 232.

The more casual (but still very modern-looking) offshoot of Osteria Francescana. Bustling, popular with the locals, and plenty of fun. Via Vignolese 58, +39 059 309 100.

Hosteria Giusti
Modenese classics in the backroom of a centuries-old salumeria: what's not to like? Via Farini 75, +39 059 222 533.

Mon Café
Owned by the same guys from the Quartopiano B&B and just around the corner from Osteria Francescana, this popular cafe/bar has a big aperitivo scene. Corso Canalchiaro 128, +39 059 223 257.

Osteria Francescana
Italy's most talked-about restaurant, and with good reason. A must for any restaurant-lover, and an eatery worth building a trip around. Go twice if you can. Via Stella 22, Modena, +39 059 210 118.

Ristorante Aurora
Uncomplicated but accomplished southern Italian cooking with a seafood focus. Via Taglio 11, +39 059 225 191.

Trattoria Bianca
Join the good burghers and dolled-up nonna-set for well-cooked tipico Modenese dishes. Courtly, old-school service and epic cotolette (aka giant schnitzels) are among its drawcards. Via Spaccini 24, Italy, +39 059 311 524.

Make an appointment to visit what is possibly the world's only combined sports-car museum and working parmesan dairy. Strada Corletto Sud 320, +39 059 510 660.

Mercato Albinelli
Modena's splendid covered central market is a fine place to shop for a picnic. Via Luigi Albinelli 13, +39 059 211 218.

Museo del Balsamico Tradizionale
Everything you always wanted to know about balsamic vinegar, all under one roof, with good resources in English. Via Roncati 28, Spilamberto.

Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari
The newer sister to the Ferrari museum in nearby Maranello is easy to find, not least because it's shaped like a giant yellow Ferrari. Via Paolo Ferrari 85, +39 059 439 7994.

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