Food & Drink

A Taste of Tuscany

Tiny Bottega stands tall with Baltimore’s giant restaurants.

It was love at first bite at Bottega as we swooned over the freshest pea shoots, creamiest farm cheese, ooziest marrow, and sweetest caramel. But, really, the charming BYOB captured our hearts as soon as we walked in the door. The storefront trattoria, along a forlorn slice of the Station North Arts District, impressed us immediately with its appealing cooking aromas from the open kitchen, intimate room (only 25 seats), and a gracious, welcoming host, who opened our wine as soon as he spotted it on our table. The brick walls, romantic candles, and shelves of worn cookbooks made us feel like we were eating dinner at a favorite foodie friend’s house.

The downside at Bottega is snagging a reservation at a typical dinnertime. The tables go quickly, and there is no place to wait if the place is packed. It can take six weeks to score a weekend seat, owner Adrien Aeschliman told us. But if 10 p.m. works for you, you’ll be in luck—or plan ahead.

We managed to reserve a spot on a weeknight but had to be there at 5:30 p.m. and were asked ahead of time if we could leave by 7 because a large party was expected. Normally, we would have been miffed at the time limit, but when we arrived, we realized the constraints of the place. And, honestly, we never felt rushed by our pleasant server during our meal, even when we ordered dessert.

The food is unpretentious and seriously good. Aeschliman wanted to re-create the dishes he grew up with in Tuscany, Italy, where his family lived part-time when they weren’t in residence in Switzerland. The Swiss-American landed in Baltimore four years ago when his wife attended nursing school here. There was nothing else like Bottega in town, says Aeschliman, who has a background in the front and back of restaurants. He opened his cozy eatery in October to immediate praise, placing his friend, Frederick “Sandy” Smith, in the kitchen as the chef.

The menu, written in chalk on a blackboard, changes often, so there’s always a reason to return—though we’re hoping, whining, and praying the marrow bones and oxtail stew with brioche toast and slabs of cheese shows up again. It was one of the best dishes we’ve had in a long time.

The other plates were contenders, too. Beet salads are ubiquitous these days, but Bottega’s is impressive with a mountain of tender pea shoots bolstering boulders of beets and dollops of chèvre. We also became quick fans of the crostini piled with creamy Winnimere cheese from a Vermont farm, sliced apples, and walnuts.

The spinach-and-ricotta malfatti were gnocchi-like morsels set in a seductive, fragrant butter-and-sage sauce and then showered in Grana Padano.

That night, we also opted for a hunk of mouthwatering hanger steak, prepared medium-rare as requested and thickly sliced to show its tawny beauty. It was served with a generous mound of peppery cress.

It’s the type of menu where you also might find beef cheeks, beef-heart tartare, or smoked lamb neck at the chef’s whim. On our visit, other items included chicken with rutabaga mash and duck breast with faro and carrots.

Desserts can range from flavored panna cottas to a pignoli cookie plate. We couldn’t bear to leave Bottega without trying one of the sweets, even if our time was running out. There were only two desserts offered—rice-pudding brûlée and a salted-caramel-and-chocolate pie. Repeat after us: Order the pie. This is one of most luscious interpretations of the salty-sweet flavors you’ll find.

We weren’t surprised that we adored our last bite as much as our first taste of the appetizers. Bottega woos its diners with a deft hand and deceptive simplicity. Be prepared to fall in love.