Review: Bettola Brings Real Neopolitan Pizza to Birmingham
2901 2nd. Ave. South (Suite 150 at the Martin Biscuit Building)
By Deborah Lockridge
A beautiful early-summer weeknight outing found us at Bettola, which we've been wanting to try since I had a sample of their pizza at Pepper Place market shortly before they opened last summer. This is pizza made in the authentic Neopolitan style, and it's far different from most pizzas you'll find in this country.
Step inside, and the long, narrow, high-ceilinged space features a bar on one side, with the wood-fired oven at the back, its dome shape covered in mosaic tiles, the red glow of the fire radiating from within. Along the other wall is a line of tables, with chairs on one side and a long upholstered bench seat on the other.
The music seemed a bit loud when we walked in, so we decided to take advantage of the nice weather and sit at one of the half dozen or so outside tables, shielded by three large diamond-shaped red umbrellas. Being right next door to Cantina, sometimes the music from the two restaurants clashed, but it added to a festive atmosphere.
We started out with the create-your-own antipasti, which is fun as well as delicious. There are three columns: Affettati (meats), such as prosciutto, soppressata and salame; Formaggi (cheeses), such as gorgonzola, mozzarella, goat cheese and Parmigiano Reggiano; and Condimenti, such as fresh marinated Gaeta olives, roasted eggplant in olive oil, and cannellini bean puree. You can choose three meat/cheese and two condiments for $7, or five meat/cheeses and four condiments for $12. We chose the former, and enjoyed Proscuitto San Daneile, Soppressata, Parmigiana Reggiano, roasted sweet red peppers in olive oil, and roasted mushrooms. The platter included just small amounts of each, plus a chewy, tender wood-fired bread we used to sop up every but of the delicious marinade and sauce from the mushrooms.
Then it was on to the small plates. Some of the tempting selections included Pate delle Due Sicilie, a wild mushroom pate with spring herbs, marsala and crostini; tuna carpaccio with arugula and capers; Fettunta, grilled country bread with eggplant, peppers, basil and capers. We finally decided on one of several delicious-looking salads, the Herb Insalata ($8), with romaine, arugula, parsley, basil, spearmint, and a lemon emulsion. This was a salad we actually smelled coming, with its bright and lively herb and lemon flavors. It was wonderfully refreshing, a perfect choice for dining al fresco on a summer day.
The pizza, though, was what we came for. The wood-fired oven is so hot and the pizzas cook so quickly, it took very little time at all for them to arrive.
The Cotto e Funghi ($13) was topped with a very fresh-tasting tomato sauce, very little more than ripe tomatoes pressed through a tomato pulper, rather than the long-simmered, heavy sauces we typically see in this country. This was topped with chunks of roasted crimini and porchini mushrooms and scattered slices of melted fresh mozzarella. Several large thin slices of ham were draped over the top.
Our other pizza was the Filetto ($15), featuring fresh cherry tomatoes, bufala mozzarella, olive oil, garlic, basil and sea salt. The fresh buffalo mozzarella that covered the olive-oil-drizzled crust was creamy and rich. It was sprinkled sparingly with halved cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, and slices of fresh garlic.
The crusts were chewy and tender on the inside, with crispy exteriors and charred spots from the oven. The texture was unusual, a bit like a pita but lighter and more tender. These pizzas are not sliced in the kitchen, because the juices would run underneath and make the crust soggy. Instead, you cut each slice as you eat it.
Some of the other pizza choices included the classic Margherita, with San Marzano tomatoes (which grow on the volcanic plains in the south of Vesuvia), buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil; the Pancetta e Cipolla, with caramelized onion, pancetta and hot pepper; Quattro Formaggi, with mozzarella, fontinella, gorgonzola and chevre cheeses; and the Salsiccia e Peperoni, which is Italian sausage with roasted peppers.
There are also a handful of entrees, including a hanger steak with arugula salad; seared tuna and swordfish with linguini; and hand-rolled garbanelli pasta with balsamella cream and four cheeses.
Our server was friendly and helpful, pointing us to some good wine selections from the menu of mostly Italian vintages. There were about two dozen wines on the list, most of them available by the glass. We started out with a 2005 Maculan "Pino & Toi" 2004 pinot grigio with our antipasti, then moved on to a Sicilian red, a Poggionotte Nero d' Avola, and a Lagaria Italian chardonnay, all $7 per glass.
If Bettola were closer to where we live we would be regulars. A great addition to Birmingham's restaurant scene.
Review published July 2007
Update (November 2008): A follow-up visit to Bettola on a chilly fall evening found the indoor dining experience to be just as pleasing. The space is small, but high ceilings keep it from feeling too cramped. Dim mood lighting is enhanced with the perfect amount of spot lighting above the tables to allow you to read menus and see your food. Nice music in the background. We enjoyed antipasti choices of buffalo mozzarella, Parmesan, one of the Italian cured meats, lightly roasted tomatoes and marinated olives; Margherita pizza; and a marvelous homemade pasta with a meat ragu. The service was excellent. Only complaint was the wine could have been a bit cooler. We still highly recommend Bettola if you're looking for something different. The food is really very simple, and their top-quality ingredients make all the difference.