Massimo Bottura, the visionary chef and owner of triple-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, is one of a few culinary masters to revolutionize Italian cuisine.
With an avant-garde approach to the country’s most traditional dishes, Bottura’s conceptual creations have not only ranked his restaurant among the World’s Best, but helped him become a global advocate for the industry at large.
“The accomplishments mean a lot to me. They also mean we worked very hard. This is my life,” says Bottura. “This has always been my dream to bring people to Modena and share the unique charm and world class ingredients—but it isn’t about me anymore. It is about the next generation. Lara and I with the restaurants, Casa Maria Luigia and the Acetaia are building the foundation for more generations to discover Modena.”
Opened by Bottura and his wife, Lara Gilmore, in 2019, Casa Maria Luigia is an idyllic 18th century guest house nestled in the picturesque Emilia-Romagna countryside (the birthplace of Ferrari, Maserati, and Parmigiano Reggiano, to name but a few highlights). Naturally, the food is the main draw.
“When I met Massimo back in 1993 in New York, he was already talking about Michelin stars,” says Gilmore. “In a small town like Modena, it took years to get recognition and be accepted for the contemporary cuisines we were presenting. Now it looks easy but all those years helped us plant deep roots, build a community and a culture of innovation and leadership.
“Casa Maria Luigia has been the most complex and comprehensive of the projects because there are so many working parts that must all align to make it work.”
Not least of which, educating people about the to the property, which they’ve now done in the most Bottura way possible.
Following the bestselling Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef (2014) and Bread is Gold (2017), Bottura and Gilmore partnered up to write Slow Food, Fast Cars—a cookbook-cum-tourism guide inviting readers to experience the honest food, unique design, and exceptional hospitality of Casa Maria Luigia.
Featuring contributions from head chef Jessica Rosval, the book presents a collection of 85 recipes from the guest house’s Emilian kitchen. Think frittatas and focaccia, cakes and pastries, jams and preserves, drinks and liqueurs, as well as a selection of inspiring fish, meat, and vegetable dishes alongside tonnes of information about their origins and regional ingredients.
“‘Slow food’ is a container for the artisanal ingredients and traditional recipes that are a part of the identity of Emilia-Romagna,” says Bottura. “Parmigiano Reggiano is a great example—a raw milk cheese which is be aged for minimum of 24 months before it is released to the public. It can also be aged longer, for 30, 36, 40 and even 50 months.
“When the two concepts—Slow Food, Fast Cars—coming together, I make reference to a dish which I began working on 30 years ago and continue to serve today—Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano,” says Bottura. “It about celebrating the slow passing of time with a fast and contemporary mind. Without technique and technology this dish could never have happened, nor without the artisan cheese tradition. Today it is as, if not more, contemporary than it was thirty years ago.”
Such contradictions, Gilmore says, are part of the couple’s DNA. “Imaginary and real is kind of like slow and fast. It is how we work, Massimo and I. We live in a dream state, imagining the unimaginable and letting our fantasies take over until the very last minute when we are forced to grapple with reality and make decisions like, ‘this is the menu, the sofa goes here, there are 12 rooms, and the wall is blue…’
Born and raised in Modena, Bottura grew up with his grandmother, Ancella, making vinegar in under the roof beams of their family home. “It filled up the stairwell with that sweet and acidic smell that reminds me of her and my childhood,” he remembers. “I do feel like my bones are made of Parmigiano and my blood is Balsamic. These traditions help us know where we come from and who we are.”
It’s not only about preserving these ingredients, but keeping them contemporary. At Casa Maria Luigia, every guest will find Parmigiano Reggiano shards and Lambrusco in their room, because the owners want it to be part of the estate’s energy from the get-go.
“The balsamic production is such a joy to share and to invite our guests to see the quiet, intimate passing of time before their eyes. Adding that element—which was always on the property—but not ours until last year—has completed the picture,” says Gilmore. “ When I first met Massimo, he talked about balsamic vinegar as if it was running in his veins. Now, in a way, it is!”
The couple are also incredibly helpful for head chef Jessica Rosval’s contributions to the project. Like Gilmore, Rosval is a North American who moved to Italy to pursue her culinary—and culinary adjacent—dreams.
“She and I see things differently than Massimo or other Italians who grew up here,” says Gilmore. “We see the hidden gems, the treasure in the haystack, and want our guests to ‘get it’ and understand how we fell in love with the culture of this place.”
Bottura, too, speaks of the imperative importance of having many cooks in the proverbial kitchen. “I always say ‘alone, I am Massimo Bottura, together, we are Osteria Francescana’.
“In that same way, ‘together, we are Casa Maria Luigia. Together we can make dreams come true. It is all about working together, learning and growing together, and never stop dreaming. It’s all about not accepting to stand still but moving forward. In my future there is more future,” says Bottura.
Still, it’s not all about restaurants, cookbooks, and luxury escape. After the Refettorio Ambrosiano in 2015, Bottura founded Food for Soul—a global non-profit which focuses on local partnerships to bring healthy meals to people in need while fighting food waste. “The most important thing I have ever done was opening the first Refettorio in Milan. My life changed after that–and my kitchen too!” says Bottura.
While the organization is still very true to his slow food, fast cars apophthegm, Food for Soul is now twelve-projects strong, with the most recent outposts opening in San Francisco and Harlem.
“It also keeps us focused on future dreams. We never stop thinking about what we can become someday, just like the Joseph Beuys expression: never stop planting,” says Gilmore. “That is really what we do. The recognition helps us believe anything is possible. The hard work though is what gets you there.”
With this in mind, the pair also launched Tortellante in 2016—a local, Modena-focused project offering culinary work to young people on the autistic spectrum.
“We began in 2016 teaching young people how to make tortellini and today we have a pasta lab that produces tortellini for many of our restaurants in Modena,” says Gilmore.
Their son, Charlie, works both at Tortellante and in the new bottega: a small shop selling the tortellini, baked goods, and local products. “It is another opportunity for these talented young people to grow and connect with the community and he is so proud to be able to add his own special magic to the Francescana Family.”
And they won’t stop there. Already on Bottura and Gilmore’s seemingly endless to-do list at Casa Maria Luigia? Eight more rooms, more communal spaces, more gardens, and a small cooking school for 6 to8 guests.
“There is always something more to dream about. If we stop dreaming, we have nothing,” says Bottura. “Maybe I’ll stop racing around one day and write a book of my memoirs. For now, I keep thinking fast and cooking slow.”