MASSIMO Bottura is the three-Michelin-starred chef behind Osteria Francescana — named best restaurant in the world in 2016 — and the mad genius who blurs the lines between art and food, with such dishes as “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart” and “An eel swimming up the River Po”. He also grew up in Modena, home to Ferrari and Maserati, and has, unsurprisingly, developed an equally refined taste in Italian sports cars. His latest is a Maserati Levante.
“When you are born and raised in Modena it’s impossible not to be emotional about engines and speed,” says Bottura, 54. “I wanted to drive fast, like my Formula One heroes. All the great Ferrari drivers would hang out around Modena: Clay Regazzoni turned tyre-burning doughnuts in the main square, and we loved Niki Lauda.”
Guests at Bottura’s £200-a-head restaurant in central Modena — where the waiting list can be more than 1,000 — have included the F1 drivers Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher.
“Michael is very special to me,” says Bottura. “He was the greatest Ferrari driver of all and a friend. After one dinner, he presented me with his red racing overalls. On the back was his name and mine.”
Bottura’s father ran a fuel delivery service and had ambitions for his son to study law. But Bottura fell in love with food while watching his mother and grandmother from his hiding place beneath the kitchen table and was soon dreaming of buying his own restaurant — and wheels.
As a teenager, he rode a blue Piaggio scooter but, at 18, swapped it for a Fiat Strada. It didn’t last long. “I grew up racing my motorbike and pulling wheelies; the Fiat wasn’t fast enough.”
His next car was a VW Golf GTI, handed down from his brother. The hot hatch had been pimped with lowered suspension and a race-prepared engine.
Bottura did study law, but in 1986 gave it up to open a trattoria outside Modena. Three years later he bought a Saab 900 Aero and had a narrow escape when he rolled it. “I was adjusting the radio, not concentrating. Fortunately, the 900 was built like a tank.”
“I like to cook slow and drive fast”
In 1993 he met, and later married, Lara Gilmore, an American actress who now works with him and with whom he has two children. Shortly after the wedding, he ploughed all his money into opening Osteria Francescana. Business was slow at first and his beloved Harley-Davidson motorbike had to go. “I sold it to a chef who ran a more successful restaurant nearby. It killed me to watch him ride in every day when I was struggling. I had to buy a Mazda 121 to get around.”
Business was so bad that by 2000 Bottura was planning to sell up. Then he had a stroke of luck — a food critic chanced on the restaurant and wrote a glowing review. “I was driving an old Mercedes estate by then, loaded with ingredients. Things started to get better after that, though, and I developed the confidence to express myself through food. Diners started to flood in, but I felt some bitterness because the locals had not supported me at the start.”
Success has enabled him to open another restaurant in Modena. In 2016 a panel of about 1,000 food writers and restaurant critics named Osteria Francescana the best in the world — the first Italian restaurant to win the title. Earlier this year he prepared a meal for the Obamas during their visit to Italy and in June ran a community kitchen as part of London Food Month.
He now has a sponsorship deal with Maserati, and has been able to get his hands on the sort of car he always dreamt of. “I was ecstatic because if you are Italian and from this city, you want to be seen in a great Italian car.
“I like to cook slow and drive fast,” he adds. “That is the perfect combination. But it’s not like that when I’m with my friend Heston Blumenthal. He usually prefers to go by helicopter.”
Massimo Bottura: my life in cars
- 1980 Fiat Strada
- 1989 Saab 900 Aero
- 1995 Mazda 121
- 2010 Mercedes-Benz W123
- 2014 Maserati Ghibli
- 2017 Maserati Levante (main picture)
- My dream car Lamborghini Miura