Review: Lunch at Bottega Cafe, a Southside Treat

2240 Highland Ave. South
939-1000
www.bottegarestaurant.com/cafe/index.html

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By Evan and Deborah Lockridge

bottegaexterior.gifIt's been many years since we went to Bottega Café, and a recent visit left us wondering why.

We arrived about 11:15 for lunch, plenty early to snag a table. The place started filling up about 11:30, though, so keep that in mind when making lunch plans. There just aren't that many places for a really nice lunch in town, and Bottega is very popular – excellent food, and you can dress up or go more casual.

Bottega offers a trattoria atmosphere, with its cheerful red walls, tile floor, high ceilings, tables covered with white butcher paper atop the tablecloths, and a popular outdoor dining area, where market-umbrella-topped tables are surrounded by a wall of green hedge. You can see the wood-fired brick oven from the dining area. The menu reflects the flavors of Italy and the Mediterranean.

We skipped the appetizer, which the menu calls "snacks," and indeed many of them were of the finger-food variety, including homemade chips, an antipasto plate, baked feta with foccacia, bruschetta and crostini. Then there was the seared beef carpaccio, which sounded delicious. But we were too enamored with the chewy, crusty bread and rosemary-infused olive oil, and wanted to make sure we saved room for dessert.

We enjoyed a dry rose wine and a bottle of Pellegrino. There's a wonderful selection of wines by the glass, from all over Europe as well as the United States.

In perusing the menu, which changes to showcase what's fresh and in season, we decided we must have something with asparagus, which is award-winning chef/owner Frank Stitt's favorite vegetable and a real spring treat. For instance, there was a delicious-sounding grilled asparagus and farm egg salad, or you could get some grilled asparagus as a side.

The menu features a large selection of salads, sandwiches, pastas, entrees and wood-fired-oven pizzas. The diners next to us ordered a chicken-and-pesto pizza, and we enjoyed the scent of garlic and fresh basil. Our server also recommended the white pizza, with fennel sausage, caramelized onions, ricotta and provolone, and I noticed a smoked salmon pizza I had enjoyed years ago was still on the menu. There are also Piadines, thin pizzas topped with a salad, folded over and cut in half.

We finally decided on an asparagus and farm egg pizza, as well as pasta dish featuring lamb, asparagus and orzo.

The pizza crust was thin and delicious, the asparagus tender. Yet despite the roasted-garlic base, it needed a little something to punch up the flavors. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've had to pick up a salt or pepper shaker at one of Stitt's restaurants, but this was one.

The lamb dish was a heavenly taste of spring. A hint of mint and other herbs in a white wine broth enhanced the tender pieces of lamb, mushrooms, asparagus, orzo and those sweet, tender fresh spring peas you can only find if you grow them yourself or know someone who does.

For dessert, we shared an order of white chocolate bread pudding, accompanied by espresso and cappuccino. The espresso serving was very small, and could have been hotter. The cappuccino was quite good. The dessert itself was delectable. This was not a chocoholic-lover's dessert, as white chocolate doesn't have much chocolate flavor in the first place, and we couldn't even discern much of that. What it did have was wonderful spring flavors in the form of raspberries baked into the pudding and sweet spring strawberries on the side. The bread was still nice and chewy, not gummy as bread puddings can sometimes get. The sauce was creamy, light, and just the right sweetness to complement the fruit.

Service was prompt, helpful and pleasant without being overly familiar. With the high ceiling and a full lunch crowd, the ambiance was sunny and bustling, but you could still have a conversation over the table in a normal tone of voice.

It may have been a while since we went to Bottega Café, but we'll be back sooner next time.

Published May 2006