The shabby-chic space of Station North's Bottega (1729 Maryland Ave.,  708-5709, bottega1729.com) only seats about 15 people, so the dominant aesthetic feature is intimacy. On one visit, we sat within inches of an older couple and perhaps a yard from the kitchen. The closeness might elicit claustrophobia in some, but it can also elevate the dining experience: That older couple struck up a conversation with us and shared their dessert, a sold-out salted caramel pie with a crust made with chocolate Teddy Grahams. Plus, watching front-of-the-house owner Adrien Aeschliman and chef Sandy Smith bustle around the tiny kitchen provided ample entertainment in the brief interludes between courses.
The restaurant's decor reinforces the almost-homey atmosphere. Cookbooks line two shelves, the rest of which hold dinner plates and glassware, baskets of onions and eggplants, jars of peeled Roma tomatoes, and ice buckets for chilling glass bottles of tap water. Aeschliman made Bottega's small tables himself and used the same variegated wood (reclaimed from an old barn) for the flooring and siding in the restaurant's interior. Tarnished silver candle holders on each table collect small floods of wax.
You can also grab a bottle of wine or a six-pack at Club Chuck if you happen to forget to bring one to Bottega, a BYOB. Though that format can be a drawback, it keeps down the price of a dinner out (there is no corkage fee) and allows you to create your own food-and-wine pairing. Consult Facebook for Bottega's menu, which is dependent on supplies. Aeschliman told us they recently emptied a hunter's stash, resulting in lots of smoked goose and rabbit.
Get the smoked goose (if it's on the menu). The rosy meat in a goose-and-mustard greens appetizer ($10) had an appropriately gamey texture and a sweet-salty balance reminiscent of baked ham. We loved the horseradish-y bite of the nettle-like mustard greens, dressed in balsamic vinegar.
While it's clear Smith and Aeschliman (who shares the daily prep work in the kitchen) know how to handle bold flavors, the lightly dressed beef carpaccio ($10), served with peppery mizuna, proved the team can be delicate too.
Their subtlety shows up especially in Bottega's vegetarian options, including a citrusy kale Caesar salad ($7) and a savory charred green tomato ($8) paired with fresh mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil, and dappled generously with a brilliant garlicky pesto made with collard greens. Spinach-and-ricotta malfatti ($10)-slightly gooey, gnocchi-like dumplings made from would-be ravioli filling-achieved the right equilibrium between salty and sweet. Handmade tortellis stuffed with a butternut squash filling ($12) were cooked perfectly al dente in butter, nutmeg, and sage. Bottega has a Tuscan slant, so proper pasta is essential-and indeed, we would have been happy to eat a plateful of plain noodles with just a bit of butter.
But we were also quite taken with Bottega's proteins: mahogany pork cheeks ($17) that gave at the faintest nudge of the fork, a brined pork chop ($17) with notes of apple and anise, and succulent veal breast ($17) whose fat dissolved instantly in our mouth. The simple plating style highlights the meat-often served atop vegetables, propped up as the centerpiece of the dish- in such a way that makes one think about texture, muscle structure, and how it affects the flavor of a cut of meat.
These heavy-hitting proteins are paired with simply prepared sides. Crunchy Roma beans (green beans on steroids) and grainy millet gave the silken pork cheeks some edge. Cremini mushrooms added earthiness to the pork chop, while broccoli topped with Parmesan provided a counterbalance. The veal's rich saltiness was evened out by the sweetness of a nearly blackened sunchoke, knotty like ginger root but soft after the first bite; baby carrots were tough to cut, even with a steak knife, but pleased with bright, fresh flavor.
That's an important point about Bottega: It's clearly not intended for those who like their carrots wilting on the fork, let alone meat-and-potatoes types. The menu, though it's always changing, is consistently narrow-perhaps three or four appetizers, two pasta dishes, and three entrees on a given night. Picky eaters will find little recourse, and accusations of being twee wouldn't be unjustified. Still, this isn't the kind of restaurant where one needs to get every component of a dish on their fork to really taste the dish. Elegant simplicity, as evidenced in the decor and the food, is the overarching principle here.
We saw that in the desserts we sampled: a tangy goat's milk panna cotta ($3) and the aforementioned salted caramel-chocolate pie ($5). The dense filling of the pie was granular and resembled what you'd expect from a Twix bar made with Kosher salt. The panna cotta left our palates clean after a rich meal.
The prices at Bottega largely match what one would hope for in Station North (ahem, The Chesapeake), and the portions are far from stingy. But the restaurant's greatest advantage is that intimacy, which makes one feel at ease. On our second visit, a woman asked Aeschliman if they served bread. They don't, and he told her as much, but then, minutes later, emerged from the kitchen with half a baguette thinly sliced. That's the sort of experience that's worth any price.
Bottega is open for dinner Wednesday and Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-10:30 p.m., and for Sunday brunch 10 a.m.- 2 p.m.