Just a warning
: Don't show up at Birroteca (1520 Clipper Rd.,  708-1934,
) wearing a plaid flannel shirt. If you do, you might be mistaken for a member of the staff. Come to think of it, this might not be a bad thing. The place is warm and the atmosphere convivial. It seems like a cool place to hang out, and by extension, it's probably not a bad place to work.
The plaid shirts help set the tone at the newest occupant of what has seemed to be a troubled spot. The stone building at the edge of the Jones Falls, surrounded by small industrial buildings (many of which actually support industry) with a water-testing facility next door, was most recently the Mill Steakhouse and Tavern; before that, Kolper's.
It's also close to urban pioneers such as the Baltimore Free Farm over on Ash Street, the nascent Union Craft Brewing Company, and local fave Taharka Bros. Ice Cream. Woodberry Kitchen is just down the road, and in some ways, Birroteca might feel like a more rustic-and accessible-version of that dear place.
The name is meant to evoke a beer joint-a riff on enoteca, the Italian wine bars once devoted to sampling a particular vintner's wares. And its close relationship with Evolution Craft Brewing Company, in Salisbury-owner Robbin Haas is buddies with the founders-means a fair percentage of the bar's 24 tap handles are devoted to the brand. There are also local beers from Union, Heavy Seas, and Flying Dog.
If an enoteca is associated with a small and stuffy tasting room, Birroteca is anything but. The bar area is big and busy, with flat screens tuned to the sport du jour, and a drinks list that is equally devoted to artisanal cocktails and Italian wines. The food menu is designed not just for grazing but for sampling and sharing. There's no order of courses dictated by the menu, and none seems to be encouraged. Plates are delivered as they're ready, and it's a fine idea to just place each in the center of the table and dig in.
Along with craft beer, one of the stated specialties is pizza, and this is as good a place as any to start your hopscotch around the menu. The thin-crust pies range from such straight-up classics as margherita, with fresh mozzarella and basil ($13) to "Duck, Duck Goose," with duck confit, fig-onion jam, and asiago, served with a slightly runny duck egg on top ($17). The bianco ($14) has four types of cheese, a combination of stretchy, salty, and sharp, and the mussel pizza ($15) has a chili-pepper bite, topped with mussels still wearing their shells.
Do order the calamari ($13), the real Italian deal: seared on a plancha, chewy in a tangy broth of lemony olive oil, laced with fat cloves of roasted garlic. The regular menu has a listing of pasta-wild boar papardelle ($14) with crumbled slow-cooked meat sauce, or gemelli alla norma ($12) with eggplant, basil, and a pleasantly oily tomato sauce.
If you're looking to eat light, don't necessarily look to the salads. The duck confit "salad" ($19), which was among the rotating menu items on our visit, is hardly a side dish. It's listed with the other salads and, indeed, the protein in question rests on a bed of wilted baby spinach. But this rich, braised leg came from one oversized duck and falls off the bone in tender, fatty morsels, complemented by bits of sweet gorgonzola and sliced figs.
Another salad, a plate heaped in lumps of dark green kale ($11) is disarmingly tasty, the frilled and dense greens slightly steamed to enable adequate mastication, dressed in a sweet raisin vinaigrette and sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds, sliced green apples, and figs. Figs were also an integral part of the "Figgy Piggy" pork shank, the monstrous slab of meat served up every Saturday and recommended for sharing. (Birroteca has family-style specials every night: Sundays, look for spaghetti, meatballs, and gravy; Thursday, risotto del giorno; and Fridays, whole roasted fish.)
Figs also dressed up our side of roasted cauliflower and were part of the chocolate tart. It's a pretty clear indication that somebody either likes figs or found some good ones at the market. I'm going for the latter explanation, bolstered by Haas' claim that the kitchen doesn't even have a freezer (well, a small one where the Taharka Bros. ice cream is stored). Rather, Chef Cyrus Keefer's farm-to-table approach means using what's on hand in all sorts of imaginative applications.
When Birroteca took over its stone building it didn't make too many changes. The large rectangular bar still dominates one room, with high tables for casual dining. In the dining room, long church pews have been installed for banquette seating, and white tablecloths along with lots of flickering candles give the interior-mostly built of stones from the river-an elegant ambience. It's the kind of place you can return to for a leisurely meal or a pizza and beer. You'll want to hang out for a while, but leave your flannel shirt at home-unless you feel like pulling a draft.
Birroteca is open Monday through Friday, open for dinner from 5 p.m. to midnight; Saturday and Sunday, open for lunch and dinner noon to midnight.