Casa Maria Luigia: The Art of Blending Food and Hospitality
When you turn off Stradello Scartazza onto Stradello Bonaghino, there are fields of sunflowers--nature’s nod that you are heading down the right path. A little farther, and a right turn leads to Casa Maria Luigia, a white, 12-room estate, sprinkled with blue-green shutters on the outskirts of Modena’s city center. This home is not just any Emilian countryside experience. It’s the Emilian countryside experience dreamed up by Lara Gilmore and her husband, Massimo Bottura, the 3-star Michelin chef behind one of the best of the best restaurants in the world. To describe it as a real-life version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory seems to cheapen it, but it communicates the surrealism of staying at Casa Maria Luigia. My husband and I booked two nights here to coincide with our reservation at Osteria Francescana, which very much felt like finding a golden ticket.
Lara and Massimo acquired the estate several years ago and this year, in Spring, they opened it to the rest of the world. When they bought the 12-acre property it was a far cry from the manicured grounds you will find today (they uncovered a tennis court and a fountain while cleaning up the property). The entrance is adorned by two ice cream sculptures that seem to be winking at you and inviting you into something familiar, yet fresh and playful. The sound of jazz from the music room dances through the main house and falls out of the open windows and doors, giving you no choice but to relax and make yourself at home. Casa Maria is decorated with mid-century furniture and high-end art such as Ai Weiwei's Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, but lacks the coldness of a museum that boasts Do Not Touch signs everywhere. Instead, you are encouraged to enjoy it. Want some food? Grab some from the kitchen. Want a cocktail? Help yourself in the cocktail room, and yes, even the rum bottle with Massimo’s name engraved on it. The experience is all-inclusive, but unlike any you are familiar with.
Each guest room is decorated differently. We were in room #11 with views of the carriage house where breakfast and dinner are served. Each room welcomes newly arrived guests with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese under a glass dome. The mini-bar is stocked with Italian sodas, water, beer, and half-bottles of local Lambrusco. Hanging next to a walk-in shower are oversized robes, which lock in the smell of amber after a shower using Ortigia products. A full-sized hair blower can be found in each powder room, a detail I appreciated almost as much as the Thistles and Birds Gucci wallpaper. On our first evening there, I enjoyed peering out the soft pink curtains watching guests arrive for an unforgettable meal. As the sun went down, you could feel the ebb and flow of energy--almost as if stardust was being kicked-up around Francescana. After all, the Chef was in the house that night.
Before heading to the pool, we went to check out the garden where we found Lara picking herbs for that night’s meal. She told us about the property, her vision for the land, and the sustainability efforts being made in the Francescana kitchen. This was just the beginning of the meaningful conversations we would be fortunate to have with guests and staff during our stay. We, the guests, were all eager to learn about each other’s journey to Casa Maria. By the pool, we met a father-son duo en route to Tuscany who managed to get a reservation due to a cancellation. In the kitchen, we chatted with a couple on their honeymoon; the wife had planned their stay at Casa Maria Luigia as a surprise before they headed to Florence. In the cocktail room, we connected with two graduate school professors who previously came to Modena for Osteria Francescana, and were back to dine at Francescana at Maria Luigia. With each conversation, the notion that food brings people together deepened.
Breakfast is a beautiful spread of pastries, bread, meat, cheese, quiches, fruits, and yogurt situated among Damien Hirst artworks and several communal tables. Every morning, fresh bread is made in the brick oven located in the courtyard. Throughout the day, you will find different prepared snacks and food in the main house’s kitchen such as a fresh flower salad with orange, smoked zucchini with basil, grilled peaches, or chocolate espresso cake. While we were trying a little of everything, one of the cooks from Francescana came in to deliver fresh rosemary crackers to go with the herb cream in the fridge. We later saw her cutting flowers outside, smiling ear-to-ear.
Although booking a non-refundable rate at Casa Maria Luigia guarantees a reservation at Francescana at Maria Luigia, we chose not to do back-to-back dinners thinking it would be excessive and perhaps overlap with the main event we were in Modena for, which was dinner at Osteria Francescana. Let me be very clear, dear reader, it would’ve been perfectly excessive, and this was an incredibly foolish (but fiscally responsible) decision. We learned too late that Francescana serves classics that have left Osteria’s menu like Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart and The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna.
We were slow to pack our bags and check-out. As we came down the stairs and walked outside, I stopped and turned to my husband wide-eyed, “It’s him.” As Massimo walked back into the Carriage House, he looked our way and with a big smile and wave, hollered, “Ciao! Ciao!” We hollered back, “Thanks for dinner, Massimo!”