2240 Highland Avenue South
Birmingham, AL 35205 (Map); (205) 939-1000; Bottega.com
Pizza type: Artisan
Oven type: Renato Wood-Fired
The Skinny: Combination of farm-to table and imported ingredients, house-made sausages, salumis, and cocktails, all served with Italian flair.
Price:Pizzas: $11.25 to $14.25
My first bite of the beef carpaccio at Bottega was the beginning of an ongoing two-decade love affair. Successive dishes of Reggiano Parmesan soufflé, fresh pastas, meats, and seafood have satisfied unfailingly. At a time when Italian fine dining in the South typically meant stuffy servers and haughty menus, Bottega was instead focused on elegantly presented, fundamentally comforting food.
The menu features dishes from regions across Italy, but most are built around optimal Alabama vegetables and proteins. Chef and owner Frank Stitt has been supporting and encouraging local sustainable producers since long before the concept was a familiar one in this neck of the woods.
Located in an imposing limestone-faced Palladian-style building, Bottega actually houses two restaurants. One offers a more sophisticated evening experience, and the other is a casual café featuring wood-fired pizzas. Socializing and drinks were the reason for most of my café visits, and I never quite bonded with the pizza. But they were Zagat's recent pick for the 50 States, 50 Pizzas guide—a reminder to give them another look.
Inside the "Pompeiian" red dining room, ample trays of roasted vegetables sit in front of the roaring fire. Servers move about purposefully, and the backdrop of oversized Orangina, wine, and spirit posters provides a convincingly European setting.
A West Coast influence makes its way through in toppings of smoked salmon and roasted pesto chicken, but a selection of different sausages, along with pancetta and guanciale, makes the decision challenging.
Two smallish looking pizzas arrived quickly after ordering. Served on white dinner plates, both had mostly solid golden brown edges with with a few large areas of inviting dark char. The server indicated that the cook time was around four minutes in a 700º F oven.
Oblong pockets of air jutted toward the top of the very well-developed end crust of the first slice. Several fissures in the lightly browned undercarriage revealed a glimpse into the actual crumb under the toppings. The appearance didn't quite fit any particular style I could place.
A slightly sweet fennel-forward sausage flavor dominated the White Pizza ($14.25), rounded out by browned onions and mild provolone—frankly, it was a white pie eureka moment for me. The texture of the tender, house-made sausage seemed more like a fine chop than a grind; the overall flavor was exemplary, and one I'll certainly seek out again. After one slice, it became apparent that the heft of toppings would make this pie a more-than-adequate lunch.
A layer of crunch in the crust was followed by a soft interior, reminiscent of yeast-heavy biscuit. The crumb, though visually enticing, wasn't as flavorful as I'd hoped—in this pizza, the toppings are the stars. The crust was merely an attractive Southern vehicle designed not to upstage them.
Bright green Castelvetrano olives are a rare treat on pizza menus. Their buttery flavor lacks the acrid quality that can result from a vinegar cure; at Bottega, they steal the stage from the Georgia onions on the namesake Vidalia ($13) pie. The provolone and ricotta base was creamy and all elements worked together, down to the nicely rendered pieces of house-cured pancetta—a terrific complement to what turned out to be another worthy pizza.
The Margherita ($11.25) came heavily topped with large chunks of San Marzano tomatoes, placed in an irregular fashion that left large areas of exposed crust. The cheese had a soft texture, but the whole slice was too unwieldy to eat by hand. It was a bit reminiscent of a mayo-free Southern tomato pie. The natural simple sweetness was refreshing, but it lacked the savory character of the meat-covered white pies.
At Bottega, the experience is what it's all about—the Italian look and cuisine makes it a perfect spot for a mini-Italian vacation. And while the pizzas aren't easily categorized into a specific regional style, the exceptional topping combos make them more than worth a try.