January 16-19, 2016: “There’s Always Chocolate, Tyler”

Album: https://goo.gl/photos/efo4AtKredqXgC4H6

Since returning from Florence, I’ve been in study mode for my last final. The microeconomics final was not good. I was very unhappy about it because I had an A in the class and I threw it away. It’s like he was intentionally trying to trick us with these questions. It’s malicious. It’s not just testing you, it’s trying to make you slip up. If I had woken up 1 hour earlier like I had intended to, I would’ve studied Cournot equilibrium and I would’ve done much better. Instead, I kept getting these weird fractions. And the questions weren’t making sense as usual, because Italians never say what they mean. So you lose points for not saying things that were not asked of you, but were expected anyways. And with an A- on the final, a European professor was not going to give me an A (despite my A work on the homeworks and midterm). That would’ve been good enough for an A in America.  It is simply much too difficult to get an A in these classes to the point that it’s not worth trying. European grading…

Anyways, it wasn’t all bad. There was a reward at the end of exams, and that was lunch at Osteria Francescana by Massimo Bottura. Dad had made a reservation 3 months back (that’s how far in advance you have to make reservations) before buying plane tickets. But then their flight back to the States happened to be the day before the reservation. The restaurant was closed the first two weeks of January. This was their first service of the new year. And unfortunately, mom had to go back to work and Morgan had to get back to school. Is the best restaurant in the world worth missing school for?

So I had to find people to come with me to lunch. Will was in China and Savannah was in Israel. To get four people, I figured I’d ask our BA/MA cohort. I got two yesses and a no from Michelle. So it was me, Dylan and Alex. And I let Alex invite his roommate Diane, who had been talking about this restaurant non-stop. And I was able to change our reservation to 5 people so we could add Katherine to our table. She also lives with Alex and Diane, and I actually know Katherine better. So it was going to be a little awkward if Diane came and Katherine didn’t. There was a slight hitch and that was the time. I told Katherine it was dinner, but it was actually a lunch reservation. And she had an exam in the morning. So we pushed the reservation back an hour and she rushed through her exam (again, totally worth it). And the five of us went off to nearby Modena to dine at the best restaurant in the world in the food capital of Italy (and the world). Modena being so close to Bologna, how could we not have this experience? When would we ever go back to random Modena (Ferrari is from there)?

The night before, Alex and Diane and Katherine invited us over for dinner at their place and we watched episode one of Chef’s Table about Massimo Bottura in preparation. It was a good thing we watched it actually, because we learned about the chef and the restaurant and the dishes. They live in a literal palace. It is incredible. They have expensive paintings, a frescoed ceiling, these Alice in Wonderland doors that are a little crooked, freshly painted ugly yellow walls and huge rooms in a huge apartment. In the past, this apartment used to host the SAIS parties, but they have yet to host a party. They know their landlord who has an even more amazing place. Every time I visit new apartments, it makes me realize how bad my apartment is. It’s not terrible, but it ain’t no palace.

Osteria Francescana was the most amazing experience ever. The whole staff was at the entrance to greet us and take our coats. We were escorted into a 5 table dining room (there are 12 tables total in the restaurant). Ours was the largest table and we had a large lamp overhanging our table. The lighting was low and there were pictures on the wall of some actress crying. The décor is very modern and simple. You can see the pigeons in the corner perched on a branch—it’s one of the pieces of art he talked about in Chef’s Table. They play jazz and samba very softly. The bathroom is nice but not amazing. It’s kind of small. The chef knocked on the door while I was in there! And when I exited and saw him turn back to the kitchen, I returned to our table very excitedly telling everyone I saw Massimo!

We had lunch for about 3.5 hours, if I remember correctly. It was a very long lunch. We did the 9-course tasting menu that had a name and appeared on the big menu for 220 euros. You could also order a la carte, or do the 11-course tasting menu. The one we did is the traditional menu that never changes. The 11-course menu is more modern/avant-garde and changes periodically. The chef is known for really messing with traditional recipes from Emilia-Romagna, which is notoriously traditional and particular with its food—I can attest. We ordered two bottles of wine, picked by Alex. We got a red that looked like rose but wasn’t, and a cabernet. They also bring you still and sparkling water, which they constantly refilled (and charged us for). It ended up coming out to 265 euros per person. In the grand scheme of things, that’s really not bad. At these upscale restaurants, you would normally expect to pay a lot more than that. And over the course of 9 courses, that’s about 30 euros per course, which is pretty good for the best restaurant in the world. In comparison to other restaurants of similar caliber in the USA, it’s surprisingly cheap. We also paid tip, which was a little arbitrary. Usually in Italy you don’t tip, but at a fancy restaurant I think you do tip a little. They covered the tip and insisted I didn’t since I got them in and didn’t drink coffee. They were all very thankful to dad for waking up early and making and missing the reservation. It was a very valuable inheritance for me.

The table was set beautifully. We had these fancy Japanese knives. They served us 3 different types of bread (the best bread I’ve had in Italy, which is usually terrible) baked by Massimo’s bakers from Abruzzo, where Alex’s family is from. The bread cracks perfectly. The distinction between crust and inside is just incredible. The Tuscan olive oil comes out of the container so slowly and satisfyingly. And of course, they pour it for you. Even the breadsticks are good and I normally don’t like breadsticks. We started with the amouse bouche—3 little palette cleansers. One was a macaron, one was parmiggiano, and the other looked like a pizza roll but wasn’t. The dishes have cute names that don’t really describe what they are. The meal ends with 3 chocolate truffles. I wasn’t expecting the truffles and I wondered how Katherine knew there was more coming. She very kindly informed me, “There’s always chocolate, Tyler.”

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A few highlights from the menu: my favorite dish was the cod. It was just divine. The eel swimming up the Po River was Dylan’s favorite and it was also amazing. Most unexpectedly, the handmade tortellini was delicious. You don’t get a lot of tortellini but each one was made with aged parmiggiano (I can’t remember how many years). It was the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life. Every dish was better than the last, beautifully plated and scrumptious. I’m afraid my photos of the food don’t properly do it justice. I was a little self-conscious taking pictures of everything. I tried to capture the experience on my GoPro. The waiters are all very professional. They describe the dishes to us and it all just goes right over my head. This meal has ruined eating for me. Nothing will ever be as incredible.

The chef came out to meet us. We were all kind of too in awe to ask for a photo. Diane almost fainted. Ours was the first table he came to. We just didn’t know what to say. I guess we should’ve thought about that before. We were just in shock. We just exchanged niceties and he moved on. But he touched my shoulder! We saw him talk to other tables and we saw how we were supposed to do it talking about the food. Katherine got him to come back and she complemented the suckling pig. He told us the greatest story about how the farmers all said 19kg was impossibly large for a suckling pig. But one farmer showed him he could have the pig suckle on two female mother pigs and it got sufficiently fat. They said it couldn’t be done! Alex also brought up the bread and asked are Abrruzzese bakers the best? He said no, but they’re focused, which is funny because Alex is not. He seemed like a pretty down to Earth kind of guy (we really should’ve asked for a picture but we weren’t ready). The documentary made him seem crazy but he isn’t really like that.

Over lunch conversation I also came to realize my otherness. It became very apparent eating with wealthy white private school kids. I guess it’s just not my usual crowd so it just never really came up before. I just have nothing in common with these people. Alex knows Danny Meyer and the chef at Marea. Diane has eaten at Eleven Madison Park. They’ve all just casually been to the Waldorf Astoria like it’s no big deal. They’ve been to the same clubs. You can know all there is to know about fancy expensive things to make conversation, and I do (plus more than anyone else), but it is not enough to fit in with the crowd. It’s not enough to just have good taste. They run in totally different circles. We simply have not had the same experiences. I don’t want to say I’m not privileged, but I have not had their level of privilege. I had this much more elegantly thought out before, but I can’t remember quite what I wanted to say anymore.

Lastly, before heading home we visited the cathedral of Modena. It is a very old medieval cathedral, in a much older style than most of the churches I’ve seen in Italy. As a result, it is much darker. There is emptiness on the walls. The interior actually has the look of thick medieval castle walls. The service is conducted on an upper level of the church while the faithful sit in the audience down below. It’s actually a beautiful unique church. It was a good way to wind down from lunch. On the way out of the restaurant, the women were given small souvenir bottles of balsamic vinegar. It’s a perfect souvenir, but I didn’t get one.

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