Bottega surprises diners with humble knock-out dishes

For weeks, I'd been keeping an eye on Bottega's (1729 Maryland Ave., [443] 708-5709, bottega1729.com) Facebook page, watching as the photos of the restaurant's daily chalkboard menu listed the day's specials. My heart fluttered at the thought of a bitter puntarella salad with anchovy and capers or skate wing or ribollita, thick with beans and sausage. And I couldn't decide if it was a good sign or not when poached cod with fingerlings and aioli appeared on the board the week before my reservation. Did that mean I would be out of luck next Wednesday? (Fortunately, it didn't.).

Such is the anticipation Bottega engenders, and it's palpable in the restaurant's tiny dining room as your neighbors negotiate and plot how to try as many things as possible, knowing that, save the caramel chocolate pie which will be served "forever," according to our server, those items most likely will not be offered on the next visit. That the restaurant quietly re-opened in October after several months of closure while owner Adrien Aeschliman mulled the possibility of moving to another space, adds to the quiet buzz that vibrates throughout the evening.

I ate at Bottega when it first opened in 2013 and, despite a good experience, somehow never made it back. In my defense, reservations were (and still are) a must and could be a challenge to nab at a restaurant that seats fewer than 20 diners. So before the crowds descend again, do yourself a favor: buy a good bottle of wine and make a date because Bottega is just as good as it was, and possibly even better.

While the food remains excellent and interesting (and I'll get to that in a minute), what also sets it apart—at least on the night I dined—was the gentle service. Kind, patient, without a trace of pretentiousness or awkward manners, you're made to feel like a welcome guest. Plates are cleared when both diners are finished eating and not before. Conversations are uninterrupted. Pacing is measured, and there is no rush. This sort of treatment feels regrettably rare around town, and maybe I appreciate it more because of it.

Bottega's menu is still compact enough to fit on a chalkboard and features four starters (primi), three pastas, four meat entrees (secondi), and four contorni (vegetables). The portions feel larger to me this time around and if you want to sample broadly, sharing is a legitimate strategy. Primi show a wide range, from salads to simple seafood preparations, and even arancini (rice balls). On the night I dined, offerings included grilled radicchio, mackerel served up in a frittata, a sparkling salad of sliced citrus, and a generous dish of very fresh calf's liver served over a rustic mash of potatoes and olive oil ($13). I'm not a huge liver fan, but this was lovely and rich, without a metallic tang, and the chunky potatoes made an understated foil to the liver's full flavor. The same principle is at work with the mackerel ($14), which had been marinated escabeche-style, so that its pickled brininess was tempered by the egg yolk and crème fraiche binding of the frittata.

We chose pappardalle embogogne ($14) as our pasta, over spinach ricotta malfatti (dumplings) and tortelli di Mugello (potato-stuffed pasta) with duck ragu. This wasn't easy or a no-brainer. Who chooses pasta with beans over dumplings? (Usually not me). But the pappardalle embogogne may have been my favorite dish of the evening. Cooked down with pancetta and sage, the beans become creamy, but not too rich, full-flavored, but not over-salted, and they cling to the wide, homemade noodles as if each had been individually hand-painted with sauce. It's a humble knockout of a dish.

Bottega has added optional vegetable sides (and a kale salad) to the menu, which could be a welcome addition if you skip or share a course or two. But truth be told, the extras weren't necessary with the amount of food we ordered. Impeccably cooked fingerling potatoes were just enough to complement the poached fillet of cod ($27) that was a trifle salty, but nicely sauced in a subtle aioli. The addition of fresh basil and peppery watercress added texture and a little bite to cut the richness. It tasted of spring. An eight-ounce bavette steak ($28) arrives in ruby-tinged slices alongside a mound of soft, taffy-like burrata. A quibble, maybe, but it is at this point in the meal that I realize I miss bread.

As noted, chocolate caramel pie is still the only dessert option, and based on the advice of the guys sitting next to me, you might want to share one rich slice between two people.

Bottega has charm in abundance. Tables are close enough to encourage conversation (and maybe a little eavesdropping) among diners. And the minimal decoration is mostly relegated to storage, like the chairs and blankets tucked away overhead or the shelves filled with bottles of Coke and cans of Coleman's mustard and cornichons. Walls are plain, save two chalkboard menus and a rendering of the Last Supper. Just the place to have a good meal among friends.

Bottega is open for dinner Wednesday – Sunday.

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