Bottega is a national landmark and a local favorite.
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Bottega Restaurant has been a Birmingham favorite for 27 years. The restaurant is the fine dining side of Bottega, situated on the right hand side, of the historic Bottega Favorita building. Its owners, Frank and Pardis Stitt, refer it to as “The Dining Room”. But we diehard patrons call it, “Big Bottega,” distinguishing it from what we call, “Baby Bottega,” Bottega Café, the Stitt’s casually upscale, Italian influenced eatery on the opposite side of the building.
The word, “Bottega” means an artisan’s workshop, where one’s craft is displayed and offered for sale. Bottega’s cuisine is Italian inspired, created with local and organic products integrated with artisan products from the Italian countryside—Southern heirloom tomatoes in the Italian pastas, and Alabama white meat peaches in the Bellini’s. The Place
This two story, Palladian style building is located at 2240 Highland Avenue South and is also found on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in the mid 1920s by the Tutwiler family to house Gus Mayer department store, the building was designed by the same architects as the New York Public Library. Bottega Restaurant opened here in 1988, the second of Frank Stitt’s restaurants—after Highlands Bar and Grill in 1982 and before Bottega Café in 1990 and Chez Fonfon in 2000. Inside, the building’s original walnut panels flank the walls. Back-to-back banquettes line the center of the space. And the gleaming, Italian marble bar is situated on the front, right corner at the foot of the grand staircase, which rises to the mezzanine, a private dining space.The People
Bottega is Frank Stitt’s Italian dream come true. In the late 1980s, on his way to Highlands Bar and Grill each day, Stitt passed by the Bottega Favorita building, which by then a housed consignment shop. Entrepreneurs see what others miss. And Stitt envisioned a patio front, tall rose bushes, and himself inside, cooking seafood risottos. During the process of turning this—and other culinary dreams—into reality, executive chef Stitt amassed more accolades than can be mentioned here, including numerous James Beard Foundation Awards. Pardis is found here both behind the scenes and visiting with guests, as she does with us tonight. Nuances of her personal touch and taste are sprinkled throughout, warming up the place, as does her smile. David Parker, a familiar, friendly face from Highlands Bar and Grill also serves—both there and here—as general manager. He greets us at the door tonight and ensures everything is to our liking throughout the meal. Paul Yeck is chef de cuisine. Annie White is the Maître d.’ And serving us tonight is waiter, Francisco Marban, Jr., whose knowledge is immense, manners perfect, and service enjoyable.
We begin the evening with cocktails of Gobe’s Refresher and Madison Avenue. Gobe’s Refresher is just that—a refreshing cocktail, rose in color, with acidic grapefruit flavors and a bit of bubbly served in a wine glass, on the rocks. The Madison Avenue is a deeply flavored, whiskey drink of Bulleit Rye, Ferrand dry curacao and Luxardo Marachino served in a lowball on the rocks. As appetizers we select quail, soup, and farro dishes paired with Champagne by the glass. Manchester Farms Quail—marinated in Ras el Hanout and hickory grilled—is tender and juicy and enhanced by Jones Valley Teaching Farm’s Jerusalem Artichokes and a caramelized relish of Petals from the Past Kumquat. Not too thick and not too thin, the Potato Leek Soup with La Quercia Speck, chive oil, and grissini is one of the most beautiful soups I have ever tasted. It is simple, rustic and bursting with aromatics, flavor and a gritty texture. And the Anson Mills Farro Verde is a colorful, earthy dish that achieves excellence with its mix of sliced beets, pureed carrots, walnuts, and Terra Preta Pea Shoots.
A gorgeous wine, Nicodemi Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is paired with entrees of gnocchi, seafood stew, and Gulf crabmeat spaghetti. Big bites of comfort arrive in the bed of Gnocchi alla Romana topped with braised oxtails, La Quercia Gunwale, farm egg, arugula, and Italian accents of Ricotta Salata. The Tuscan Seafood Stew is a scrumptious, San Marzano Tomato based stew chock full of succulent snapper, octopus, squid, mussels, along with mirepoix and hearty pieces of handmade pasta. And the Gulf Crabmeat Spaghetti is a delightfully spicy dish with hints hot chili and garlic.
For dessert we end the evening sharing a heavenly Valrhona Chocolate Budino.
Published, B-Metro magazine, January 2015