Oodles of Joy

Chef Frank Stitt’s secret ingredient is unmeasured joy.

By Jan Walsh

Years ago, a local chef asked me privately, “Frank’s restaurants are always filled… How does he do it?” I paused and replied, “Joy.” He looked puzzled and changed the subject. But it is still true today. I have seen the joy in his kitchen for cooking demos and as he stops by for table visits… Whenever Chef Stitt talks about food, his eyes light up and a smile comes across his face. From his delight in a simple, spring asparagus to the pleasure of making fresh pasta, he is immersed in food and finds joy in his life’s work. Tonight’s menu at Bottega Dining Room reveals his latest imaginative dishes. Always in season and changing nightly, the dinner menu is updated with the day’s freshest catches of fish and freshly picked fruits and veggies.

The Dining Room itself was updated recently. Its ambience is black, white, and elegant all over, with candlelight and fresh flowers on every table, and is the best version of itself. Familiar, friendly faces (most whom we have known for years from Bottega and Highlands Bar and Grill) welcome us, including owners, Chef and Pardis Stitt.

More often, we lunch at Bottega Café, especially on Saturdays. So, we have looked forward to dinner tonight, since we made reservations. For handcrafted before dinner drinks, we order Royal Italian and Stings like a Bee. And we pair our drinks with two apps that are always on the menu in both the Dining Room and the Café: Bottega’s signature Focaccia with Bottega Infused OO, and Marinated Olives. The bread is freshly made in house daily, consistently soft, airy, chewy, yeasty, and nutty. And Bottega’s mix of brine and olive oil cured olives and its marinade are my favorite olives in all the world. We dip bites of bread into the olive oil and nibble the glistening, briny, fruity Picholine, Kalamata, and Castelvetrano olives, as we sip our cocktails. You may also enjoy these olives at home, as Stitt’s Marinaded Olives recipe is found in Bottega Favorita cookbook.

Kev’s refreshing Royal Italian is a subtle and smooth sipper, of Bombay Gin, pineapple, lime, and limoncello. Refreshing and thirst quenching on this warm, late summer evening. My Sting like a Bee is spicy synthesis with layers of depth. Its Tres Generaciones is triple distilled tequila that boasts a seductive smokiness from 12 months of toasting in oak barrels. Pure blue agave flavor is enhanced with hints of brown sugar, caramel, and vanilla. The cocktail’s Ancho Reyes chile liqueur is handcrafted from the sun-dried ancho chile, then macerated for six months. And honey adds a hint of sweetness to the heat in this lively libation.

Both drinks also pair well with our starters, of Kev’s Fritto Misto and my Grilled Figs. With nine starter options, all of which tempt, especially the squash blossoms, it is not an easy choice. The fritto misto is a golden mix of red snapper, Gulf shrimp, oysters, sweet peppers, and lemon, along with a caper aïoli. The complementing flavors and textures of the seafood synthesize in this bowl of gold nuggets. Highly recommended!

My figs are prosciutto wrapped tight with toasted walnuts, and grilled. The “quilts” bundling the figs detail tiny grill marks. Yet nothing can cover the beauty of these figs, as their delicate earthy, sweetness shines through, gently enhanced by the nutty and saltiness of their covers. These bundles are put to bed on a dramatic and aromatic charred fig leaf and lemon mint cream. This dish is also served with a déjà vu moment… Several years ago, I was in the kitchen with Chef Stitt as he demoed a recipe for fish paillard with fig relish. In the Cooking Demo he charred a fig leaf to use as a decorative, fragrant, touch of whimsy garnish.

For mains, there are also nine offerings, of which Kev has the Veal Chop. And I order Cioppino. And we pair them with a bottle of Italian wine. Spiced cilantro butter melts atop the thick, hearty chop that arrives sizzling. On first cut it shows off its proper degree of doneness, with its light pink and juicy insides. The veal is accompanied by fresh, sweet, grassy charred okra and sweet corn, cut in sections from the cob, bursting with farm freshness. Don’t miss this chop!

My cioppino is a lovely Italian American fisherman’s stew, which originated in San Francisco. This light, tasty tomato and wine broth is made hearty with its catches of the day: half spiny lobster tail, gulf shrimp, red snapper, calamari, and mussels. Toasted bread atop serves as its starch and is used for dipping. This dish is brimming with three of my favorite things in one bowl: tomato, wine, and seafood. The beauty and succulence of these gems of the sea make a hearty meal of this light stew. Catch it if you can!

Kev always wants ice cream for or with dessert. And this evening, he gets his wish, times three. Coffee, Almond, Toffee Ice Creams please his sweet tooth and brings him joy. I also enjoy a scoop of vanilla atop my Blueberry and Blackberry Cobbler. Not my grandmother’s cobbler, Bottega’s cobbler is served in the ramekin it was baked in, which concentrates the flavors. I swoon as the ice cream melts onto the piping, thick, golden crust and down into the goody part of hot juicy blueberries and blackberries and their juices. Let him eat ice cream! This made for one cobbler is all mine.

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