What to Do in Modena, Home of the World's Greatest Restaurant
Published on Jun 27 2016 12:09 PM in Restaurant
So you want to go to the best restaurant in the world? You’re in good company.
Though it’s long been an established spot on the culinary bucket list, the small Italian city of Modena has officially shot up the ranks. It’s here—smack in the middle of Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s agricultural core—that you’ll find the most coveted dinner reservations on earth, at Osteria Francescana. Chef Massimo Bottura’s $200 tasting menu is a blowout meal worth traveling for, but Modena offers much more for those who make the pilgrimage.
This humble town is a microcosm of everything that draws 48.5 million travelers to Italy each year. It has ancient-looking Romanesque architecture—its Piazza Grande is Unesco-protected and the main church dates to 1184. It’s a nexus for Italy’s deep-rooted culinary tradition, being the birthplace of balsamic vinegar. It’s surrounded by provinces known for producing the best parmigiano reggiano and prosciutto under the sun. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also home to Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini.
Traditionally, Modena has been a place to pass through rather than linger in—that’s largely due to the fact that until a few years ago, there was nowhere great to stay. An earthquake in 2012 further stalled the city’s rise as a global destination. Luckily, rebuilding some of Modena’s most iconic sights, like the Estense Gallery, just culminated a few months ago—just in time for the city’s moment in the spotlight. Here’s everything you need to know about planning a trip.
Nabbing That Coveted Reservation
On your mark, get set, go! Osteria Francescana opens reservations three months in advance at its website—which means July 1 will be the next chance for foodies to stake their claim. Even the best travel agents and concierges in the region have little to no sway over the system, as the restaurant has only 12 tables. Stalk the site at exactly 10 a.m. central European time (GMT +1) when tables are released, and plan your trip according to your draw. Missed your chance? There are waiting lists for every seating.
Where to Stay
Most travelers to the region of Emilia-Romagna stay in Bologna, the area’s largest city and a culinary capital in its own right. While Bologna has the largest supply of hotel rooms, most are midrange options that don’t quite impress. Instead, opt for one of four rooms at Quartopiano, a tiny but luxurious boutique hotel in a Modena townhouse, owned and operated by a former general manager at Osteria Francescana. The rooms have gabled ceilings, whitewashed wood furnishings, and an aesthetic that’s halfway between Provence and Rome.
For more of a countryside experience, book in to the Relais & Chateaux property Antica Corte Pallavicina, owned by another acclaimed Italian chef, Massimo Spigaroli (it’s where Bottura and his family take weekend escapes). It’s a little more than an hour’s drive away, near Parma, with its own Michelin-starred restaurant, expansive farm, and bespoke bicycles for rides through the surrounding area. Bonus: You’ll get one of the best hotel breakfasts anywhere in the world.
Fast Cars, Slow Food
Aside from your table at Osteria Francescana, you’ll want to book a few insider experiences to make the most of your time in Modena. Uri Harash, a travel agent with Perfetto Traveler, which specializes in culinary trips to Italy, can arrange visits to three balsamic vinegar farms, called aceitaias, just outside the city limits; the artisans there will teach you all about the years-long production and aging process, how to taste vinegar, and what to look for when shopping for the finest stuff (hint: older isn’t always better).
For automotive enthusiasts, Harash can also one-up a visit to the sleek Ferrari and Lamborghini museums by arranging F1 track time with a professional Ferrari driver in the suburb of Maranello (20 laps will run you almost $9,000).
Modena may be the one place where you can have top-notch food and automotive experiences under one roof, so if both appeal, make a personal appointment at Hombre, the dairy where Bottura sources his parmigiano reggiano. According to local lore, the 80-year-old owner, Umberto Panini (yes, that’s his real name), bailed out Maserati from economic collapse in the 1970s, partially by buying up a lot of the company’s vintage cars. Now those, and many more, are housed in a barn on-site that doubles as Italy’s coolest car museum.
What Else to See
Modena is a small city, and inherently walkable. Make sure to visit the covered market on Via Albinelli (where you might run into Bottura or his wife, who shop there daily for produce and meat).
If you’d rather not carve out the time to visit balsamic vinegar producers in situ, get the crash course on the city’s most famous ingredient at the Spilamberto Balsamic Vinegar Museum. It houses some of the oldest existing bottles of vinegar (which will likely never be tasted) along with personal production barrels, called "batteries," that belong to many of the region’s best chefs.
The Estense Gallery may not be as grand as the Uffizi, but it’s worth visiting—it’s newly reopened after three years of restoration work following the 2012 earthquake, and includes a rich collection of works by Bernini and Velazquez.
Where to Eat
You came to Modena to eat, so you might as well pick more than one great spot to indulge. The local specialty is called gnocco fritto—fried pillows of savory dough used to envelop paper-thin slices of prosciutto. Try it at Caffé Collegio, which churns out some of the best in town each morning.
Osteria Ermes is a local institution and often has a line out the door; it’s a humble mom and pop place that makes an emblematic tortellini in brodo, or tortellini served in capon broth. Pay careful attention to the kitchen setup if you can—you won't see a refrigerator. That's because all of the ingredients are bought fresh daily.
For dinner, try Massimo Bottura’s more casual spot, Franceschetta 58, where you can order lots of little dishes to share, from ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms to veal cheek stew. It’s also a great place to try culatello, a type of rare salumi made from heritage pigs in the neighboring province of Zibello.
Modena is about 100 miles southeast of Milan, making it an easy drive from Malpensa Airport. It’s a two-hour drive north from Florence, or a half-hour train ride from Bologna—the options for getting in are plentiful.
News by Bloomberg, edited by Hospitality Ireland