Restaurant Review:
Changing Seasons at Bottega Favorita

2240 Highland Ave. South (Southside)
939-1000
www.bottegarestaurant.com

We’ve been to Bottega twice this year, once as spring was transitioning into summer, the second time as summer was leaning toward fall.

Our most recent visit occurred right after the restaurant reopened following a makeover. The bar has been moved back to the front of the restaurant, but now is a lovely L-shaped, marble-topped affair, complete with a Ferrari-red meat slicer, allowing patrons to enjoy freshly sliced salumi at the bar. Running through the center of the restaurant now is a banquette – an upholstered, high-backed bench providing seating on both sides. We suspect this follows the successful addition of a banquette to another Stitt restaurant, Highlands Bar & Grill, a couple years ago. These allow a little more seating without diners feeling as cramped, as well as a bit more casual feel.

Bottega is not strictly an Italian restaurant; rather, as their web site says, it is “a little workshop, the implements being the essences, traditions and ingredients of Italy, north Africa and the Mediterranean.” And, we might add, with a little bit of Alabama and some French cooking techniques thrown in for good measure (after all, the south of France IS on the Mediterranean…)

For libations, we started out with a cocktail each. The “blackberry sour” was especially delightful, made with blackberry-infused rum and garnished with fresh berries. A classic martini was also very well done. With dinner, we had a lovely bottle of Italian wine recommended by our server, Tina, who was an excellent and entertaining guide throughout our meal.

On this visit, we had to start out with Bottega’s signature appetizer, Parmesan Souffle, which we had never had. (In fact, I am ashamed to admit we have never eaten a cheese soufflé, although we have had chocolate dessert soufflés.) This is an individual soufflé, rather like an egg custard; the presentation, with prosciutto and wild mushrooms, is reminiscent of Highlands’ famous baked grits appetizer. As much as we love the grits, the soufflé is transcendent, rich and melt-in-your mouth, with the distinctive flavor of good Parmesan.

We also had the carpaccio, excellent as usual whether at Highlands or Bottega – paper-thin raw beef served with a horseradish sauce (made with freshly grated horseradish root, of course), shavings of more of that wonderful Parmesan, and the tiny, intensely flavored arugula leaves chef/owner Stitt prefers. We also enjoyed a few slices of bread and foccacia, with excellent extra virgin olive oil for dipping. Ah, we thought, THIS is why bread and olive oil became such a restaurant fad in the ‘90s! (We would have liked a little more; I’m sure they would have brought it swiftly had we asked, but then again, we wanted to save room for our meal.)

For entrees, we went with seafood. Seared tuna was incredible. Rather than the tired sliced-and-fanned presentation, this was a fairly rectangular and generous piece of tuna, cut lengthwise on the diagonal and served over a large portion of, well, succotash (told you there was a bit of Southern thrown in here.) With firm-yet-tender baby limas that looked ready for a photo shoot, late-summer corn, and grilled okra and onions, this would have made a meal unto itself. And the deep red, finely-grained tuna reminded me why I pay $30 for an entrée of this here as opposed to the cheaper, but lesser-quality versions at other restaurants.

Our other entrée was fresh fettucine with lobster, corn and wild mushrooms. It was described as being served with a pesto sauce, but this was not your traditional basil-pine-nuts-garlic-parmesan paste. Rather, it was more subtle, almost a deconstructed pesto, with fresh basil leaves apparent in the dish. While this dish was very good, the pasta itself was so tender and delightful it was almost overwhelmed by the other ingredients. (And, I think I have decided that I am just not all that wild about lobster, other than in lobster bisque. The lobster was actually an off-menu substitute for shrimp, and I ended up wishing I had ordered the shrimp instead – but that’s a personal taste thing. I have a hard time passing up good Gulf shrimp.)

For dessert, a selection of three homemade sorbets (including muscadine) delighted, and a seasonal fruit turnover was delicious.

On our spring visit, we shared an extraordinary appetizer of octopus. This, our server explained, was marinated, slowly braised, then grilled, to avoid the rubbery or tough texture often associated with this creature. Served with gigante beans, fennel and spring bulb onions, this was a marvelous and memorable combination of flavors and textures. (If you want to read a good article on cooking octopus, see “Octopus Demystified” at The Splendid Table.)

Another striking dish on our spring visit was veal liver “Harry’s Bar,” served with polenta. Like the octopus, veal liver was a new experience. We love pate and fois gras, chicken livers and sweetbreads, so it seemed about time. It was a little too strong for my taste; Evan loved it, but it was so intense and rich he could only eat about half. Harry’s Bar is a Venetian landmark, famous for its drinks (including the Bellini) and a luxurious restaurant.

The other entrée on our spring visit was snapper served with orzo, olives, sweet peppers and basil. This was a pure breath of summer.

Bottega has perhaps the loveliest outdoor dining area in town, surrounded by a hedge and anchored on one end with a fountain framed by vines entwined with tiny lights. Alas, on our spring visit it was a bit too chilly after sunset to sit outside, and on the late summer visit, still too hot and humid. But with lovely Alabama fall days at hand, it would be a great time to dine al fresco.

Stitt’s second cookbook, “Bottega Favorita,” is due out by Christmas. As the description on Amazon.com notes, “leave it to Stitt to make Italian cuisine his own. ‘There's no Pompano in Venice, but ours, fresh from Apalachicola, fits into the cartoccio (Italian fish stew) perfectly; our Chilton County white peaches are squeezed by hand for a bellini; our wild Gulf shrimp, oysters, crab, and fish are easily a match for their Mediterranean equivalents,’ Stitt writes. This appealing new cookbook includes the best of the Southern-influenced Italian recipes he has served at his Birmingham, Alabama, restaurant Bottega Restaurant and Café, for the last two decades.”

Review posted October 2008. Thanks to Virginia Kelser Jones for the photo. Virginia has a cool blog, http://birminghamalabamadailyphoto.blogspot.com/, which features a photo a day in the Magic City.