Bottega's plotline has more twists and turns than a soap opera. The tiny Italian trattoria in Station North closed in early June, with owner Adrien Aeschliman promising to reopen in a bigger space in Hampden.
Months ticked by with no new restaurant. Loyal diners feared it was the end of the charming BYOB. Then, in October, Bottega announced on Facebook that it was "back from summer vacation." Could it bounce back after a five-month nap?
Aeschliman is committed to the Maryland Avenue restaurant — and to Baltimore, he said recently. He is also getting ready to open a French-influenced restaurant called Colette in January in the space formerly occupied by the Red Parrot Asian Bistro on North Charles Street, next to Tapas Teatro.
Bottega, meanwhile, is back to business as usual. Reservations are still as hard to book as when the restaurant opened in 2013. And its Tuscan dishes are as soulful as we remember, with chef Frederick "Sandy" Smith once again manning the cramped, open kitchen.
The narrow, intimate dining room with seating for 25 hasn't changed either. It is still reminiscent of a farmhouse kitchen where friends gather for a convivial meal.
Wall shelves are filled with cookbooks such as Jacques Pepin's "La Methode" and David Chang's "Momofuku," tidy stacks of dishes, striped mixing bowls and a tarnished silver platter, among other items. The wood-plank tables are beautiful in their simplicity.
The only element that can be jarring is the service. The lone waiter who was overseeing the dining room on our visit had an air of aloofness. He seemed unconcerned that the arugula salad we ordered as an appetizer arrived well after the entrees. If he is busy or on a smoke break, the wine bottle you brought can sit on the table unopened for a while. A bonus, though: There is no corkage fee.
And the food is so mouthwateringly good that you are in a forgiving mood as soon as you tuck into the first dishes of the evening. The mound of velvety chicken liver mousse benefited from a topping of briny pickled vegetable relish, though the toasted baguette slices could have been a little less burned.
We admire the kitchen's use of a handful of ingredients to turn out colorful, intriguing plates. For one, a base of snowy ricotta is blanketed with spiced roasted carrots and a drizzle of honey. In another, a seared pork belly pops with a mustard glaze, greens and thinly sliced radish and apple slices.
Though the menu changes often, one dish seems to be a perennial — the spinach-ricotta malfatti. The round balls of leafy vegetable and creamy cheese are irresistible in a pool of brown butter laced with fresh sage and powdered with Grana Padano. The kitchen also uses pappardelle as a starting point for many of its pasta offerings. On a recent evening, the tender, wide noodles were lathered with a hearty, tomato-based boar ragu that offered comfort on a chilly, rainy night.
The showstopper was a city ham shank, a statuesque hunk of meat still gripping a prominent bone. A sweet maple glaze complemented the slightly salty meat. A whole roasted branzino arrived with its tail swimming off the plate. The fish was deboned in the kitchen, but a couple of stragglers remained. We picked with care and were rewarded with flaky, white meat that needed only a squeeze of lemon.
Bottega now offers diners a choice of contorni (vegetables and salads) to dress up the main dishes at an extra cost. In the restaurant's first iteration, the sides were included with the meal. Despite the added tariff, I would cheerfully spend $6 to have the larattes baurade again. The fingerling potatoes were swoon-worthy with a lively aioli-mustard sauce.
The arugula salad we hoped to have as a starter was appreciated when it finally arrived at our table. The peppery greens were treated to a tangy vinaigrette and pickled shallots. Another choice, grilled kale, was scented with a variety of herbs that calmed its cabbage-like flavor and tamed it to a mellow rendition of today's "it" vegetable.
There was one dessert available on our visit: the salted-caramel-and-chocolate pie. It is a holdover from the restaurant's earlier days and reminds me of a fancy Heath bar. I loved it then. I love it now. The gooey, chewy slice is a must order.
In the tumultuous world of restaurants, Bottega has returned with swagger and verve. Owner Aeschliman, a Swiss-American who relocated to Baltimore when his wife decided to go to nursing school here, has found just the right ingredients on Maryland Avenue.
Where: 1729 Maryland Ave., Baltimore
Contact: 443-708-5709, bottega1729.com
Open: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $13; pastas, $15 to $19; entrees, $21 to $26.
Noise/TVs: It's easy to hold a conversation, even with rock groups like the Smiths and Psychedelic Furs riffing in the background; no TVs.
Service: One server handles all the tables and works at his own pace.
Parking: Street, metered (bring quarters)
Special diets: Can be accommodated, though the restaurant would like to know ahead of time about gluten-free diners as it uses flour in its pastas.
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted; takes parties up to six.
[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭.]