The best B&B in the world?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
When is a bed and breakfast more than just a bed and breakfast? When it’s Casa Maria Luigia, an 18th-century house in the Emilian countryside run by Italian chef Massimo Bottura and his wife, Lara Gilmore.
Take the breakfasts. Far from your usual Italian spread, these buffets cooked on a wood-burning oven in the garden are inspired by the feasts Bottura’s grandmother used to make on Christmas morning. On my visit the choice included two varieties of focaccia (one made with olive oil and seasoned with sea salt, the other topped with ricotta and honey); a pair of frittata (one with caramelised onions and balsamic vinegar, the other with spinach, cherry tomatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano); erbazzone (vegetable pies filled with spinach, Swiss chard, robiola and Parmigiano-Reggiano); pan-roasted vegetables and fruit (San Marzano tomatoes, friggitello peppers, Brussels sprouts, figs, peaches); chocolate-chip cookies and cinnamon buns (a nod to Gilmore’s American roots); and two dishes I regarded as perfect: gnocco fritto (fried dough) with mortadella, whipped ricotta and extra-aged balsamic vinegar; and cotechino (roasted pork sausage) on a crumbly “sbrisolona” almond-butter cookie with zabaglione and Balsamic vinegar. “A bit of everything” was the chef’s suggestion. Happy to comply.
Bottura and Gilmore acquired the property in San Damaso in 2017 with the intention of turning it into a B&B — a place where visitors to their three Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana in nearby Modena might stay. They didn’t know how it would evolve; only that it would. The most obvious additions have been two evening restaurants. Francescana at Maria Luigia offers a nine-course dinner around communal tables based on the most iconic dishes from Osteria Francescana. Al Gatto Verde, launched this September with a wood-fired menu devised by Canadian head chef Jessica Rosval, follows the success of the more rustic outdoor brunches that became a fixture here post-lockdown. Next year there are plans to expand onto a neighbouring plot, but currently Casa ML (as it’s known) comprises 12 rooms in the main house, a cottage that sleeps six, an outdoor swimming pool, a tennis court and gardens. The feature that sparks the most interest, however, is probably the house fridge, which guests are encouraged to raid from midday onwards like teenagers home from college. Alas, I never found anything this good in my parents’ fridge: gorgonzola with mostarda and honey; roasted carrots with tahini yoghurt; panzanella; cucumber panna cotta; tiramisu; Lambrusco. Despite the obscenely indulgent Emilian breakfasts, one somehow finds room for more.
A new book, Slow Food, Fast Cars (Phaidon), co-written by Bottura, Gilmore and Rosval, tells the story of Casa ML and its recipes. It also chronicles Bottura and Gilmore’s other passions: art, vinyl records and cars. “This is a love story about how two people can stick it out in a business and marriage and how a home can bring them together in a different way,” Gilmore tells me. “This is a space where people get to see another side of us.”
The book is filled with vignettes about Gilmore’s design choices in the house and garden, Bottura’s extensive collection of LPs in the music room (“We bought Casa Maria Luigia just for this room,” he writes, exaggerating only slightly), and the fleet of cars and motorbikes (Bottura’s other hobby) in the converted barn. Known as the Playground, this space doubles as a gym and gallery, so if you ever wanted to swing a kettlebell surrounded by Ferraris and Maseratis and two life-sized sculptures by American artist Duane Hanson called Frankie and Rose, this is your chance.
Bottura characterises Casa ML as a “laboratory for ideas”. Every object tells a story or embodies a concept. A triptych by Ai Weiwei in the main hall depicts the Chinese artist dropping a Han Dynasty urn. “I think Ai Weiwei stole my idea,” says Bottura, who has been breaking with tradition in his kitchen for almost 30 years. Dining at Francescana at Maria Luigia offers guests the chance to try iconoclastic dishes such as “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart” that made Bottura famous. Many are now being phased out at Osteria Francescana to make room for new ideas. In that sense the restaurant is an archive, a place to “keep dishes alive that changed modern gastronomy”, says Bottura. It’s also a “gym to train young chefs to be super-focused” as they attempt to recreate dishes as expertly as when first they were served.
The new restaurant Al Gatto Verde is just as eloquent an expression of the way in which Bottura’s philosophy is evolving. Under Rosval’s charge, the eight-course tasting menu I ate from (there is also an à la carte) was faultless. It featured dishes such as “It’s Not a Mussel” (a blue crab/pork belly croquette) and “Lamb from Montreal to San Damaso” (skewered meat with peach mostarda and julienned vegetables) and culminated in a dish called “Cielo Terra Mare”, inspired by Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”. This had taken some unexpected turns in development. Having started out as “luna rosa” it ended up as “rosa luna”, a moon-grey rose moulded out of charcoal-infused semifreddo paired with caviar, raspberry, rose and seawater. “Embrace the creative process and leave yourself open to the unknown” is how Rosval described her Bottura-informed approach. Like Casa ML’s evolution from a B&B into something grander, the dish was testament to going with the flow.
Slow Food Fast Cars is published by Phaidon at £39.95