I think of Bottega, Adrien Aeschilman's small and crazily charming new restaurant in Charles North, as the kind of place you'd want your best friend to open, if your friend was as talented and gracious as Aeschilman.
Bottega might make you think of Philadelphia, where there was an explosion about 10 years ago of tiny mom-and-pop BYOB restaurants, many of them about the postage-stamp size of Bottega, which seats around 20 people, tops. The boutique BYOB trend never really caught on in Baltimore, but with Bottega, you can see how a city full of diners fell in love with it.
First of all, Bottega is a great-looking place, full of rusticity, like the rough-hewn tables, farmhouse chic tableware and the parti-colored wooden floor planks that Aeschilman salvaged from a West Virginia barn.
The room's dominating feature is a hutch, which Bottega puts to both practical and decorative use, the way it would be in a real home, its shelves lined with serving bowls, jarred preserves and a collection of cookbooks that you think certainly must be Aeschilman's own.
What's not easy to convey, unless you spend an evening or two dining there, is how Bottega manages to evoke the experience of dining at the home of good friends without getting too precious or cornball about it.
OK, you can't help but think of the old Maison Alsace American from "Saturday Night Live" — "As you know, this is our home. I cook only three nights a week, for only one couple" — but I promise you it's a fleeting moment. Bottega might be a bit stagy, but it's a real restaurant where you order food, someone brings it to you, and you give them money at the end.
The menu each day is small, very small. There are typically three or four appetizers, things like salads, pates and smoked meats. Then, two or three pasta selections, served as a primo, or first course; then, two or three main course choices, which in the early weeks at Bottega have been built around rabbit, lamb and pork. Finally, there might be one or two dessert choices — ice cream, maybe, or a panna cotta with chestnut honey and rhubarb.
While Bottega resembles an American farm-to-table restaurant, it doesn't feel quite as literal-minded in the hands of Aeschilman and his chef, Sandy Smith. What Bottega does is take the best seasonable ingredients at hand and apply classic but simple culinary technique to them. At Bottega, there is the joy of smoking, poaching, rendering and stuffing.
The idea is that you work your way through a long and leisurely dinner the way they do in Europe — antipasto, pasta, secondi and dolci. Or at least that's how it's done in Tuscany, where Aeschilman spent time working in a trattoria called Da Giorgione in the Mugello Valley.
So, on a cool autumn evening, you might order for an appetizer, and love, a small and delicious serving of pork rillettes, meat that's been poached in its own fat and pulverized into a pate form; a luscious plate of peppered and seared beef carpaccio, served with peppery, hand-dressed mazuma leaves; slices of smoked goose, served with scarlet frill, a purple-red mustard green; or crostini topped with a well-tempered chicken pate.
You could, if you wanted to, substitute a pate of lima beans for the chicken pate. And there is a vegetarian option for the pasta and main courses, too. But there was never a fish option for a main course, and if Bottega is starting to sound like not your kind of place, it might not be.
I told a friend how much I liked Bottega, but when I told him his main course options might be rabbit and pork, he said it didn't sound like it was for him. I get that. But I know there is an audience out there for Bottega's pork cheeks, served with roma beans, which are treated by Bottega's kitchen with a minimalist's precision, and its rabbit ripieno — what we might call "stuffed" rabbit — served with black beans and rapini.
We loved, best of all, a pasta dish: tortelli stuffed with butternut squash, sauteed in brown butter and dressed with flash-fried sage leaves. This was one from the heart, you felt, and it made you wish you entertained more, because food like this just makes people happy.
Know that Bottega is BYOB and that reservations are a must. This is not necessarily because Bottega is always booked solid but because there's no room to wait in if it is. Also know that Bottega's dining room, which is up a short flight of stairs from the ground level, is not wheelchair-accessible.
Where: 1729 Maryland Ave., Charles North
Contact: 443-708-5709, bottega1729.com
Open: Dinner Wednesday through Saturday, lunch Wednesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$12.50; entrees, $13-$27.50
Food: Tuscan-inspired farm-to-table food
Service: Polite and personal
Best dishes: Smoked goose with scarlet frill, pappardelle with duck and tomato, pork cheeks with roma beans
Parking/accessibility: On-street parking is plentiful.
Special diets: The menu typically includes vegetarian options.
Noise level/televisions: The noise level is manageable even when the room is full. There are no televisions.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]