Bottega Cafe is an institution among locals.

By Jan Walsh

Photography by Beau Gustafson

Frank and Pardis Stitt’s Bottega Cafe is one of my favorites for lunch, cocktails and dinner. And I am in good company. Local “movers and shakers” are among the cafe’s steady clientele.

The Place
An Italian Trattoria, Bottega Cafe is the casual side of the Bottega Favorita building, which dates to 1925. The other half of the building is the Stitts’ Bottega Restaurant. The Italian, fine dining restaurant opened here on Highland Avenue in 1988, and the café in 1990. The pebbled patio—dotted with black wrought iron, umbrella—tables, framed by its meticulously cut hedge—is perhaps Birmingham’s most popular. Inside this vibrant café, massive palladium windows—enveloped by apricot colored walls—overlook the patio and Highland Avenue. The space is divided by a common table. To the left a banquette and café tables lines the interior wall. To the right, the L-shaped bar and several choice window tables offer views of the wood-fired brick oven.

The Chef
Executive chef, Frank Stitt’s accomplishments and achievements fill volumes. They include being a past winner of James Beard’s Best Chef of the Southeast and Beard nominations for 2008 and 2009 Outstanding Chef Award. Bottega Restaurant and Café and his other restaurants—Highlands Bar and Grill and Chez Fonfon—have been reviewed and praised by national and international publications. And Stitt is the author of two cookbooks, Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita and Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.

The Cocktail
Sitting on a barstool at the bar or—when weather permits—is “the” place to be at 5:00 p.m. And no question what to order—Pardis Margarita. The cocktail is poured from an icy stainless cocktail shaker into a chilled martini glass, rimmed with salt and a slice of lime. As beautiful as its namesake, it is the best margarita I have ever tasted. The remaining cocktail stays cool in the shaker, which is left on the table, making the second pour as delicious as the first.

Favorite Fare
Like Bottega Restaurant, Bottega Cafe’s cuisine is a marriage of Stitt’s love of Italian fare with the Southern influences of his heritage—yet more casual. The seasonal menu at Bottega Cafe offers fresh gulf seafood, naturally raised meats and locally grown organic lettuces and vegetables, and their famous pizzas.

When lunching at Bottega Cafe, as I am today, I time my arrival (at 11:15) in tandem with the first batch of fresh baked homemade focaccia’s exit from the oven. Served sliced and topped with coarse salt, the soft bread is just as I want it—still warm. The bread is paired with a plate of Bottega’s house blend olive oil for dipping, which gets my meal off to the perfect start.

Favorites among the “Snacks” menu are Bottega’s Homemade Chips and Charred Onion Dip and the Roasted Sweet Peppers with Goat Cheese. But today there is a new dish to try—Grilled Focaccia with Fresh Ricotta. The ricotta is house made of Wright's Dairy heavy cream. This white mound of cheese is the consistency of a spread and is served with olive oil and black pepper. Grilling the focaccia bread adds just the right hardness to stand up to a layer of the divine, creamy and light cheese, spread across the top. And I have a newfound favorite.

Entrees today are Torn Pasta with Fudge Farms and Braised Beef Ribs. I have previously ordered and enjoyed the Torn pasta with Fudge pork several times, and can’t get enough of it. Irregular, wide pieces of butter colored, hand torn homemade pasta with old world texture and flavor are coated with sugo—Italian for liquid or sauce and dotted with crumbles of Fudge’s tender pork, tiny bites of tomato, carrot and pecorino. The handmade goodness of the pasta and the patience of slow cooking the pork sugo shines through in the aromas and layers of flavors and textures in this balance of starch, protein, acidity and creaminess. An enormous Brasied Short Rib is fall off the bone tender. Deep, dark and delicious beef is served with bite-sized wedges of roasted potatoes, carrots, and delicate leaves of farm fresh wilted greens.

Bottega Cafe’s dessert menu is not printed. True to Italian Trattoria style it is found on the bar’s chalkboard: Pumpkin Cheesecake, Guinness Stout Cake, 7-layer Coconut Cake, Pear and Almond Tart and homemade Ice Creams. We order and share the homemade ice creams: luscious Maple, creamy Vanilla, and deep, dark Chocolate Jack Daniels. This dreamy trio is served with a homemade warm, coconut macaroon and a crisp checkered chocolate and vanilla cookie—making another sweet memory of Bottega Cafe.

Published, B-Metro magazine, December 2010

Categories: Casually Upscale, Reviews
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