Al Gatto Verde stems from a weekend barbecue brunch.
Just a 40-minute drive northwest of Bologna, and I am lost in the pianura padana, a seemingly never-ending flatland of farms, vineyards, and orchards in Italy's Emilia Romagna region. This area is Wyeth picturesque, or better yet, Bertelliano, a living landscape taken straight from paintings by turn-of-the-century Emiliani painters, Luigi and Flavio Bertelli.
Welcome to Bottura World — a microstate of hospitality centered around Casa Maria Luigia, which chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore's food-focused B&B.
From my very first visit in 2019, I was hooked. It wasn’t just the family kitchen stocked with delicious and healthy treats put together by the fabulous Francescana Family (Bottura’s global team), the gorgeously restored 18th-century villa decorated with fabulous contemporary art on every wall and the chilled Lambrusco in my bedroom. It was the complete overlap of food, art, hospitality, sustainability, and nature in a way that captures the Emilia Romagna regions and shows off its very best. (Remember this is Italy’s breadbasket, a region that shares aceto di balsamico and prosciutto, MaxMara and Maserati, and tortellini.)
Its countryside address may be off the radar, but since its opening, Casa Maria Luigia has skyrocketed out of the culinary ballpark. Its morning buffet is billed as “the best breakfast in the world," where cotechino (the slow-roasted pork sausage is served on a crumbly almond cookie and covered with a dollop of zabaglione) is king. The evening dinner program at Francescana at Maria Luigi is a menu featuring Osteria Francescana’s retired greatest hits.
This year's pilgrimage back to the ever-fantastical Bottura World includes an introduction to the property's new restaurant: Al Gatto Verde.
Al Gatto Verde is a casual chic trattoria in an old barn house in the Modenese countryside next to Casa Maria Luigia. Its origin story is the combination of fate — much like the Jack Pierson multimedia piece on its green walls reads — and chance.
As Bottura explained, Casa Maria Luigia had been hosting Tòla Dòlza — a weekend barbecue brunch in the back garden of the villa. But he, Gilmore, and Casa Maria Luigia head chef Jessica Rosval were thinking of more.
First, they transformed the recipes and stories into "Slow Food, Fast Food" — a lush tome of 85 recipes and stories chronicling Casa Maria Luigia since its 2019 opening. Gilmore then started transforming the property next door, an old carriage house and barn they acquired over the past year when Bottura came across a Mike Bidlo painting, a meticulous recreation of a Jackson Pollock drip painting that straddles the line between original and interpretation.
“As soon as I saw [Bidlo’s] work, I went crazy. I said, 'This is our barbecue,'” he told Travel + Leisure. “It's good because the barbecue that we are doing here is much more than just barbecue. Conceptualization ... the plates are so conceptual they are not like the classic barbecue that you smoke and you serve. It's much more.”
Walk around the villa and I pass the acetaia, the traditional balsamic vinegar production where Casa Maria Luigia has 1,400 barrels aging next to contemporary art installations by Ingo Mauer, Kehinde Wiley, and Olafur Eliasson.
A few steps further I find myself face to face with Al Gatto Verde’s kitchen — an open and exposed set backdropped by green tiles, the wonderful dome-shaped MAM wood-burning oven, and its centerpiece Tuscan grill. Rosval and the team move in innate synchronicity behind the counter in a kind of tableau vivant and we’re ready for the show, seated at one of the garden tables with a batched Negroni, aged in a balsamic vinegar cask onsite.
“You get front row to see how [the] kitchen works,” Rosval said. “It's like watching a family working together. We wanted to have that real great sense of openness and sharing again.”
Openness is also fundamental to Bottura and Co’s no-waste sustainability philosophy that manifests at Al Gatto Verde not just on the plate but in the space. The MAM oven is outfitted with a zero-pollution tank to reduce emissions, solar panels line the roof, and the specially-developed Mapei ceramic tiles collect rainwater that is used to irrigate the grass under our feet.
For dinner, we head into the dining room, a minimal chic space with 10 tables. The walls are painted a vintage Ferrari green and sparingly decorated with art including Pierson's Fate and Bidlo’s "Not Pollock." Just as Gilmore told me, the crowd is chill. Artsy glasses, jeans, Golden Goose sneakers, and multilingual. The secret is out.
We choose the tasting menu, eight beautiful dishes, which deep dive into discussions on terroir, tradition (both Bottura’s Modenese roots and Rosval’s Canadian), sustainability, seasonality, and of course barbecue. Almost every element in each dish has been transformed by the grill or wood oven.
Not A Mussel is trompe-l’œil, an ersatz mussel made of blue crab (an Adriatic invading crustacean), pork belly, and green apple, while cotechino makes a sultry reappearance in Cotechino and Dragon’s blood, the pork sausage Japanese-style deep-fried crust drowning in a succulent plum sauce. Agnello da Montreal a San Damaso gastronomically reconstructs Rosval’s journey from her Canadian hometown to the Modenese countryside in a piece of lamb encrusted with the burnt end of’ bread set next to a peach mostarda.
Each bite is amazing, and then one of the craziest desserts I have ever experienced is set in front of me: Cielo Terra Mare (Earth, Air, Sea). What looks like a carved, light pink rose is a carbon semifreddo made with the ashes from the oven, and filled with sour raspberry, and caviar, set on a kombu and nori cookie and bathed in rose-flavored seawater. This dessert is exactly what Al Gatto Verde is: a deep dive into terroir, tradition, sustainability, and of course barbecue.
It’s all in the name, revealed Gilmore: “Al Gatto Verde. The cat and the green ... environmental consciousness. Uniqueness and innovation.”
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