For three glorious days, I weaved my way through Modena - Italy's culinary epicenter. This was my first visit to the historical Emilia-Romagna region and I wanted to take advantage of every moment. Our time was jam packed with new experiences, everything from a traditional balsamic tasting to touring a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory and of course ending with a coveted seat at Osteria Francescana, the number 2 rated restaurant in the world. By the way, don't ask me how the Ferrari Museum was, I skipped it - why would I go there if there's an entire museums dedicated to cheese?
Modena is simply an hour and a half drive north of Florence and two hours southeast of Milan. If you're coming from Milan, you can easily take a 1.5 hour train ride for under 10 euro directly to Modena; however, it's a bit more difficult to get to Modena from Florence. The train ride from Florence takes more like 2-2.5 hours because there are no direct routes - you have to switch trains in Bologna (my least favorite, large Italian city).
With that said, the best way to get around Modena is by driving yourself. Many of the best spots to visit in the city are spread apart and are difficult to get to by public transportation alone. If you're thinking to yourself, "oh hell no, I'm not driving around Italy with those crazy, Vespa driving, speed demons," I don't blame you - we had the exact same thoughts. However, as long as you aren't trying to drive in a crowded city like Florence, Milan, Rome or Bologna, the roads are actually really nice and easy to navigate and ended up saving us money to rent a car rather than constantly buying train tickets. We drove from Florence to Modena to Lake Como to the airport in Milan and it was wonderful having the freedom to go wherever we wanted when we wanted. It also didn't hurt that we were driving a brand new Audi A5... Anyway, renting a car is definitely something to consider.
where to stay
The city of Modena itself is actually rather pretty, but if you're looking for the real Italian experience of rolling hills and sprawling vineyards you'll need to get out of the city a bit. I did a ton of research and wasn't all that impressed with most of the options in and around Modena - keep in mind this is not one of Italy's main tourist destinations. I decided on a place called Opera02, an eclectic, boutique hotel focused on agritourism (think of a high end farm stay). If you're willing to drive 20 minutes from Modena's city center, you won't regret the extra trek because of the breathtaking views right from your private porch. Here's the important details you'll want to know if you decide to book a stay here:
- Rooms are spacious, modern and clean with unbelievable views
- Even though you're in the middle of the countryside, the resort has it's own restaurant so you don't have to leave if you don't want to
- The property has it's own vineyard and acetaia (place that makes traditional balsamic vinegar) so you can tour and taste both just steps from your room
- You can borrow mountain bikes on site to explore the surrounding area
- Prices are surprisingly reasonable
- The property is extremely environmentally friendly and the farm is 100% organic
- It's a bit of a drive back into town
- Rooms have strange layouts - like an upstairs loft with a chair and tv and a bathtub in the middle of entrance of the room that seems to splash all over the floor when you take a shower
- The restaurant isn't amazing - pasta dishes seem heavy and lack flavor, the staff is subpar and overall it fails to meet the expectation of a fine dining restaurant that it tries hard to be
- It just seems like they are still getting themselves together - I received one price via email, then was charged something different (which they kindly fixed when I said something), getting someone to give us tastes of balsamic was way too difficult and they lack refinement in their processes of being everything from a boutique hotel, restaurant, farm and retailer
With all of that said, I'd stay here again in a heartbeat. It's not often you get to stay in a place as beautiful, peaceful and unique as this in Italy; so regardless of the negatives, it's still a fantastic option in Modena.
what to do
A TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC TASTING - ACETAIA DI GIORGIO
So apparently we know nothing about real balsamic vinegar and no, it tastes nothing like the $20 bottle of "expensive" balsamic you picked up at the grocery store. The real stuff is only found in Modena, but unfortunately the name of "Modena Balsamic Vinegar" was never protected and has been used and abused to describe the watered down, processed junk we all know and buy. This is a process passed down from generation to generation, takes a minimum of 12 years to age a single bottle, it has to be approved by a very strict consortium and costs anywhere from $50-150 for a 2oz bottle. My mind was blown when I realized I had been tricked for all of these years! And I call myself a foodie.
While there are several places that you can experience balsamic tastings around Modena, it's really not all that easy to find and you want to be sure that you are going to one that is truly authentic and has the official D.O.P. approval (there are plenty of fakes if you don't know what you're looking for). We booked a free 1 hour tour with Acetaia di Giorgio for two main reasons - it wasn't a large factory, it was a family's home and they were kind enough to respond to my emails (in English) for a last minute tour. Wow, were we thrilled with the experience.
Our gracious host Marcello (of course that's his name), who left behind his degree in engineering to learn the business of balsamic vinegar making because he is marrying into the family, led my husband and I to the attic of the home where he walked us through every step of the process of producing traditional balsamic vinegar. We tasted a variety of bottles, tasting for ourselves the drastic difference in what we thought balsamic vinegar was, soaking in the depth and complexity of flavors in each drop. We loved it so much we left with two bottles that we display in our dining room and open for special occasions. It's rare that you encounter so much culture and history in just one hour, but this is a truly unique place - to the point where I just got goosebumps writing about it, literally. Don't leave Modena without experiencing it for yourself, you won't regret it.
PARMIGIANO REGGIANO TOUR - 4MADONNA CAEFICIO DELL' EMILIA
Similar to traditional balsamic vinegar, true Parmigiano Reggiano can only originate from a specific region in Italy. While the majority of parmesan factories are in Parma as one would probably expect, there are a handful in the region of Modena that are just as authentic and just as traditional. When booking a parmesan tour, you'll want to keep in mind that if you want to see the process of making the cheese, tours usually only happen at one time early in the morning (typically around 8am), which is why we preferred to do one in Modena because Parma is at least an hour's drive away. Also keep in mind that it's common that you'll need to book a tour at least a week in advance to reserve your spot and they are pretty strict about that.
We booked a morning tour with 4Madonna Caseificio Dell' Emilia (it's a mouthful), but this is a much more modern, large scale production, unlike the more personal experience at Acetaia di Giorgio. For 5 euro per person, you received a full one hour tour of the facilities and tastings of the various aged parmesans (for a little more, you get more options like their rare red cow parmesan and fresh ricotta which I would go for next time). Our guide Pamela was very entertaining and knowledgeable, taking us through every phase of the parmesan lifecycle, ending in the warehouse that houses over 33,000 wheels! It was like being in cheese heaven and a place I only dreamed about seeing in real life. There's really nothing like being surrounded by huge wheels of cheese... only in Italy.
I highly suggest bringing or buying a small cooler with ice or freezer packs because you will definitely want to bring some of this delightfulness home with you. We bought some for family, for friends, and of course for ourselves to enjoy for years to come. I literally travel with a cooler and an extra suitcase just for food - but that's for another blog post.
wander around the streets of modena's city center
Modena is a beautiful city, full of authentic Italian culture and a photographer's dream. We spent a few hours just walking around, going in and out of boutique shops, high end cooking stores and little cafes. It's got the refinement of Florence, luxury of Milan with the intimacy of Lucca - all you'd want in an afternoon in Italy.
The Ultimate culinary Experience
Let me start out by saying that if you haven't watched Chef's Table on Netflix - you need to. Seriously, stop reading and just go. The series takes you through the life and culinary journeys of the most critically acclaimed chefs in the world, including Chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana (Season 1, Episode 1). After simply falling in love with Chef Bottura and the unique passion he brings to transforming traditional Italian food in April of 2015, my husband and I started planning our trip to Italy to visit this three Michelin Star, number two rated restaurant in the world to taste it for ourselves.
The Overly Dramatic Story of How I Snagged One of the Rarest Reservations in the World
As you can imagine, reservations at Osteria Francescana are not that easy to come by. With only 12 tables for lunch and 12 tables for dinner - you need to be on your game to score one of these coveted spots. Reservations open up 3 months in advance (example: bookings for the entire month of July will open up on April 1st) and can be made online or you can try calling. I had already booked our flights and hotel reservations for Modena, so I was determined to get a reservation during one of the 3 days I had in town - lunch or dinner didn't matter to me. Here's what happened:
- I set calendar reminders for my husband and I for 12:01 am on August 1st Italian time (to make November reservations).
- Unfortunately, unlike many high end restaurants in the US that give you an exact time for when the reservation system opens up, this is Italy and it could be at any point so I needed to leave my schedule open to try for a while.
- 12:01 am - Once the timer went off, my husband and I went to work, clicking and clicking. And for a while we tried... and tried... literally clicking every 5-10 minutes to refresh the site until November reservations opened up. I clicked for 9 hours - until just after midnight my time. At that point I was exhausted and figured that it could be hours, if not days until it opened up - so I went to sleep with the intention of trying again in the morning. I also knew that I would be in Italy for over 2 weeks so I had plenty of dates that I could make work even if my preferred dates happened to get booked. Worst case scenario, I wake up in the morning and we have to make reservations for another day and just drive from Florence to Modena for dinner - it would be worth it. No big deal; time for bed.
- 4am - I woke up in a panic. Holy crap, what have I done? What was I thinking going to sleep??? This is the number 2 restaurant in the world, the worst case scenario is that I don't get a reservation and miss my chance completely even though I've already booked our entire trip around this one meal!!! So I got my ass out of bed.
- 4:05 am - I stumble into the living room in the dark, open up my laptop - blinded by the glow of the screen - and hit refresh on the reservation site... Only to find that my biggest fear had come true; the entire month of November was booked solid for both lunch and dinner. Sometime between the time I went to sleep at midnight to the time I woke up at 4am every single table had been reserved. How is that even possible?
- So what did I do? I started crying. Not something I'm proud of and believe me, I get that there are way more important things going on in the world, but in my world at the moment this was catastrophic. And come on, I'm a luxury travel blogger, what do you want from me?!? My husband loves to tell the story of how he woke up at 5am, wondered why I wasn't in bed and found me in the dark, tears streaming down my face staring at my computer (for some reason he forgets to tell the part about how he laughed, patted me on the head and went back to bed).
- Through my tears, I frantically put myself on the waiting list for every single day I would be in Italy - basically putting in the notes that I was willing to come any day, any time, just tell me when! I'm sure they could smell my desperation and the pathetic tremble in my voice.
- So I waited... and waited... basically planning my last resort of showing up at the front door of the restaurant for lunch and dinner each day I was in Modena until they felt sorry for me (or annoyed, I didn't really care about the details) and finally just let me sit in the corner of the kitchen.
- 3 days later I got the email I had been hoping for - I was in! They had a cancellation and they were able to get me in for lunch on one of the days we were actually in Modena - hallelujah! I happened to be in my office, in a meeting when I got the email and screamed out loud. All the anticipation and tears and anxiety had paid off, we were set. We were later told by Lara (Chef Bottura's wife) that they often get people booking several spots initially then cancelling, so it's always a good idea to put your name on the waitlist because they are often able to fit people in.
Everything about the meal was superb. We were warmly greeted by Lara, wife of Chef Bottura, and she was just as lovely and engaging as you would expect. We sat in one of two small and simply decorated dining rooms with only 5 other tables. There are two tasting menu options - Traditional, based on the dishes he is known for and Sensations, his newer culinary experiments. I'm not sure if this is always the case, but we had the option of a combination of the two menus, highlighting the best of both in roughly 15 courses - which is of course the one we ordered.
Over the course of our three hour lunch our senses were challenged unlike ever before as we witnessed the art of food at the highest level. With every single dish, we were surprised by the ingenious flavor pairings, taking in the magnificent colors and textures in each creation. What Osteria Francescana brings to the world of food is masterful. To provide context - we recently ate at the #5 rated restaurant in the world in New York City and it doesn't hold a candle to what Chef Bottura and his team are presenting at Osteria Francescana. At the end of our meal, we were lucky enough to get a private tour of the kitchen to meet the artists behind each dish, including Chef Taka who is the creator of the famous dessert - Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart! The staff were all so kind and gracious, even asking if they could take a group photo with us - my heart nearly exploded with joy as you can see from the gitty grin I have plastered on my face in the picture. Unfortunately, Chef Bottura's train was delayed from Milan and we were unable to meet him - our only regret of the entire experience. We dream about the day we will return, fondly looking back at the memories we made as we ate the best meal of our lives.
IMPORTANT DETAILS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Confirming Your Reservation: You have to confirm your reservation either via email or by phone 48 hours prior to your reservation date. If you do not do this, you will lose your table. The easiest thing to do is to ask your concierge at the hotel to call and confirm for you - just don't forget!
- Parking: We struggled with this a bit ourselves, so please read carefully so you don't make the same mistakes we did.
- The city center does not allow for cars to drive through and many streets are actually restricted for use other than by special vehicles, so obey your GPS because you can get a ticket if you're not careful. We made the mistake of making a wrong turn and luckily a kind Italian gentleman flagged us down and helped us out. Because of this, you can't park in front of the restaurant, you'll need to park on or near Viale Vittorio Veneto 59 and walk about 3-5 minutes to Osteria Francescana. This is a very safe street (photos below) so definitely park here if you can.
- Here's where it's even trickier - you'll need to pay for parking at one of the parking meter machines ON the street you are parked on (not on a parallel one like I did the first time, you can only use machines ON the street you are parked on). The machines are there, you may just have to walk up and down the street a bit to find them. You can only use cash or debit cards, not credit cards, which you would not be able to understand unless you can read in Italian so I suggest bringing coins.
- Please keep in mind that this is a very traditional Italian area so we found it hard to find anyone in the vacinity of where we parked that spoke English - but if you need change there is a small convenience store that you can pop into.
- Finally, the meter says something in Italian about 1pm - 2pm being free, confusing us even more. I asked a local and they explained that the hours you pay for take this into account so if you arrive at 12pm, pay for 4 hours, you are actually covered until 5pm since it includes the additional free hour of parking. This probably only matters if you are coming for lunch, but it's important to note just in case. I've included a GoogleMap below to explain what I'm talking about.
- Attire: Osteria Francescana is a fine dining restaurant, so you'll want to dress accordingly. For our lunch reservations, I wore a simple black dress with heels and my husband wore slacks and a blazer - smart business attire. This seemed to be on par with the other diners.
- Cost: You can expect to pay around $500 per couple for the tasting menu, before tip and alcohol. With a wine pairing, it's another $150 per person. Of course, you can always order a la carte, but I would only suggest this if you were planning on returning - otherwise you'll miss the whole experience. Also, it is customary to tip at fine dining restaurants throughout Europe - 10-15% is sufficient.
- Cameras: They are a bit strict about this... if you simply have a point and shoot or phone camera, that seems to be just fine; however, anything larger needs to be approved ahead of time. I had emailed about my camera (a basic DSLR, nothing too fancy) and was told it would be fine as long as it's not professional gear - no tri-pods, flash, bulky lenses, etc. However, when I arrived, I was asked by the manager not use my camera - I'm assuming he felt it looked professional. I assured him that there would be no tools and I would be discrete and was given permission... kind of. Of course, this made me nervous about it the entire time, so I didn't get the photos I wanted. Just keep this in mind when you go, but I did see other people at the tables around us taking photos with their smaller, personal cameras with no problem. I do realize that this is to ensure that others dining are not bothered and the experience of the meal is not ruined - but this is one of those once in a lifetime meals so I had to do what I had to do.