Bringing the world’s flavors to Modena’s historic center
Throw a stone in Modena, and you’ll hit a great spot to eat. That’s what to expect from the tiny town in Emilia Romagna, Italy’s cornucopia of everything you love and hometown to Massimo Bottura. And there’s a palpable vibe of community thanks in part to the Bottura’s incandescent ethos that spotlights how eating well and living well is a team effort. It’s no wonder that philosophy has inspired Francesca team Jessica Rosval (head chef of Massimo Bottura’s Casa Maria Luigia) and Caroline Caporossi (former program development and expansion officer for the Food for Soul) to create Roots, restaurant and training ground for the next generation Modenese community.
Four Women, Four Dishes
At 67 di via Francesco Selmi in Modena’s historic center is the Complesso di San Paolo, a vast multifunction space with a medieval history, a historic tree and Roots, a restaurant like no-other. Step inside the dining room and you are in another well-executed, understated stylish restaurant – High ceilings, arched windows, a partial glassed floor showcasing an ancient canal, and a contemporary decor befitting the latest hygge-meets-Michelin dining spots. But it’s not, inside you’re in the nexus of the community program Association for the Integration of Women (AIW), where advocacy and community become a literal melting pot of cultures and food for Modena’s immigrant women.
At Roots, you eat well and you feel good knowing that your seat at the table (a 38 euro prix fixe) is more than just a dinner. It is empowerment in four dishes, from four women over four months. This meal is the culmination of a kitchen training program from AIW where Rosval oversees training and menu execution. Over a four-month period, four trainees are neck deep in learning every aspect and station, and work together planning menus based on dishes from their home country.
While San Paolo’s history is classic Modenese (even featuring an UNESCO-protected tree at its entrance), Roots delivers anything but typical Modenese fare. Dishes are crafted to honor students’ worldly backgrounds–recent trainees have hailed from Tunisia, Guinea and Indonesia – an presented in tapas-like format giving equal importance to each dish.
“The menu we serve is what makes it really special because it will always reflect the origins of the women that are training in the kitchen,” Rosval explains.
Diners choose from an Italian-French wine list before enjoying a carefully curated spread of appetizers like the Moroccan eggplant salad (Zaalouk) and Indonesian sate padang (traditional meat skewers). Menu item names span multiple languages, rounding out the multicultural experience. The entire experience consists of a family-style meal of seasonal produce with the menu being refreshed with each new class of trainees (three times a year).
A melting pot of cuisines it may be, the menu flows. Each dish strategically complimenting each other as diners work through their meal, somehow communicating a sense of wonder as to why these flavors hadn’t been combined sooner.
“We really believe that there’s no better way to bring people together. And to, and to make someone understand so immediately someone’s culture and someone’s value of their diversity then through food,” Caporossi says.
It Takes A Community
AIW was originally conceived in 2019 by Rosval and Caporossi as an advocacy program to help immigrant women with job training and placement. As immigrants themselves, the friends have a strong empathy for what it takes to adapt to a new country, and strove to fill the gap between women searching for work and community, eventually tapping into the restaurant industry’s strong demand for skilled employees.
Since its founding, AIW has been running red hot in supporting and empowering immigrant women. In 2021, the United Nations awarded AIW the UNMGCY Youth Leadership and Innovation Award, quickly followed by support from Fondazione Ernesto Illy, Electrolux (who outfitted the kitchen), Caritas Modenese, Comune di Modena and Rotary International, among many others. In addition to a dining room, the San Paolo complex houses a coworking space and coffee shop (adjacent to the kitchen) that is open public space and meeting area for AIW.
With a trifecta of goals – offer community, assist immigrant women in navigating the workplace by training them in everything from how to open a bank account and manage household finances to workers’ rights and dealing with Italian bureaucracy, and provide professional kitchen and restaurant training – AIW and Roots have a menu that nourishes the community.
Roots has already proven to be a smashing success. The restaurant is busy each evening (Tuesdays through Fridays, and Saturdays lunch and dinner) and the co-working space buzzes daily. Most importantly, Roots trainees continue to grow and find their place in Modena. Upon concluding the’ four month program, trainees are provided with job search support in the industry. In the program’s first 18 months, Rosval and Caporossi have already seen job placement rates surpass 75%.
“We’re training migrant women to integrate into Italian life, but at the same time we’ve created a space where Italians come and discover this beauty of diversity that exists in Modena,” Jessica says. It’s this beautiful two-way street–just a melting pot of people and cultures and fun and feminine energy.”