Bottega celebrates 20th anniversary and debut of the restaurant's cookbook.
By Jan Walsh
Bottega Restaurant has much to celebrate. In 2008 the restaurant's interior underwent a remodeling that retained the integrity of its architecture but updated its ambience. This same year, executive chef Frank Stitt was awarded the national distinction of being one of five chefs to receive a James Beard Nominee for Outstanding Chef. And Stitt's new cookbook, Bottega Favorita, which debuted in Birmingham in November, will become available in bookstores nationally on January 1, 2009.
Built in 1925 on Highland Avenue, the Bottega Favorita building is home to Frank and Pardis Stitt’s Bottega Restaurant and Bottega Café. The restaurant opened here in 1988, and the café in 1990. Bottega Restaurant may have been second in the timeline of Stitt’s landmark restaurants—after Highlands Bar and Grill—yet it plays second to none. The cuisine is a marriage of Stitt’s love of Italian fare with the Southern influences of his heritage. And dinner at Bottega Restaurant is much more than a meal; it is a sensory experience that fulfills both appetite and spirit.
The valet opens the car door to a sense of arrival and anticipation—no matter how many times I have previously “arrived” here. Through the massive black wrought iron gates, the restaurant is to the left and the café to the right. Each has a separate pebbled courtyard. The restaurant’s courtyard is anchored by a bubbling water fountain, which is draped by Lady Banks Rose vines. Glowing palladium windows welcome us towards this famous limestone façade.
Inside the recent remodeling added a sense of balance and harmony, while maintaining the interior’s proportion. Back-to-back banquettes in soft muted, tones, line the center of the space with tables and cane-back chairs dotted in the distance. Bar stools—upholstered in brown distressed leather—line the new L-shaped white, marble Salumi Bar at the front of the restaurant. The bar’s nightly selection of fine cured meats—from all over the world—are sliced paper thin and per order on the shiny, red stainless steel, manual Berkel Prosciutto Slicer. The building’s original walnut panels from its first occupant—Gus Mayer—flank the sidewalls, one of which leads upstairs to the mezzanine dining space.
Being seated at this candlelit, white tablecloth restaurant, I say, “Yes, thank you,” to the offer of a black napkin placed in my lap. A familiar voice whispers, “Jan!” from across the banquette. It is Mary Jim Bottcher, along with Wanda Massey and Mary Norwood—a trio of foodies and friends from my hometown of Oneonta—who came here for a birthday celebration dinner. The restaurant is soon filled from the bar to the mezzanine with regulars and others out for a special evening.
From the extensive wine list a “grower” Champagne is chosen—A. Margaine Brut Rose Villers Mamerlu. Server Amy Thurston answers questions regarding the menu, divided between appetizers and main courses, as appetizing aromas of fresh seafood, sizzling steaks, Bolognese and complex, varied vinaigrettes float by. From the list of 10 appetizers we select the Bottega Parmesan Soufflé and Homemade Ravioli. The soufflé is a masterpiece encircled with bites of lean prosciutto and filled with flavors of Parmigiano. The light and fulfilling lovely Homemade Ravioli, with flavors of brown butter and sage is filled with sweet potato and topped with fresh crabmeat. Other appetizers that tempt but are not tasted include a Braised Lamp Soup with local turnips, butternut squash mint and walnut pesto. I catch a glimpse of the Fritto Misto with Snapper, Calamari and Oysters, on its way to another table, which make it a must if I can catch it for my next dinner here.
From the menu of mains, Stitt and chef de cuisine John Bolen offer a culinary explosion of options: Venison Bolognese, Paella, Rabbit Torino, Hickory Grilled Pumpkin Swordfish, and Capellini with tomato, garlic and olive oil. Three steaks include a Grilled Veal Chop, Painted Hills Hanger Steak, and the Beef Ribeye. From the list two other dishes are selected—Braised Short Ribs and Gulf Black Grouper. Many of the mains are accompanied and highlighted by fresh, organic, local vegetables from Snow’s Bend Farm in Tuscaloosa. These products are both beautiful and flavorful. The ribs arrive with evidence of being slow cooked overnight as they fall off the bone with tenderness. The ribs are served atop potato gnocchi—accompanied by Brussels sprouts and roast turnips—and are highly recommended for those with an appetite for fall fare. The dish is paired with a glass of Bottega Southside Red 2004. The grouper dish is golden on the outside and white and flaky on the inside. Mediterranean touches of capers, bites of olives, Sicilian couscous and bay laurel go swimmingly with the fish. Authentically Bottega—the grouper dish is both Southern and Italian. The dish combines flavors in an inventive, creative way—but not for the sake of being artistic. Presentations are lovely but not shaped into odd formations that detract from its natural essence. Instead the flavors and presentation show simplicity and ingenuity.
Pastry chef, Dolester Miles’ dessert menu offers 10 desserts and a variety of espresso, cappuccino, Harney and Sons Teas sand Bottega Private Blend Coffee from Royal Cup. And from the wine list are dessert wines, including the Moscato di Asti, which we pair with Chocolate Truffle Cake with Jack Daniels Ice Cream. The crunch of pecans adds texture to the warm rich chocolate and the delicate, sweet wine. Frank’s Favorite Cake is a “Wow!” dessert. Among the six layers of sponge cake is white wine zabaglione (custard), and the cake is topped with heavenly peaks of Swiss meringue. Stitt gives sponge cake a good name. The coffee is made of premium beans from Kenya, Guatemala and Sumatra. Other desserts that were sadly missed include a towering Bananas Foster Bread Budding, Sweet Potato Cheesecake, Tiramisu, and Vanilla Bean Crème Brulee with pecan biscotti.
Dinner at Bottega Restaurant fulfills the appetite, lifts the spirit, and brings anticipation of the next 20 years!