When we first heard about Birroteca, it was described as an artisanal pizza joint. Birroteca does have pizzas — good, wood-fired pizzas with chewy crusts and fancy ingredients, but there's more to it than that.
Some of your friends and neighbors have already started staking claims to Birroteca, so don't wait too long. For one thing, there's an appetizer of grilled calamari that you need to have before the next fortnight passes. There are also promising pizzas, terrific salads and hearty autumn pastas. The menu is that of a whip-smart Italian trattoria — think crispy polenta with eggplant ragout and celery leaves, bruschetta topped with prosciutto and arugula, or warm burrata and cherry tomatoes.
The setting, one of the seemingly numberless mill properties that line the winding roads along the Jones Falls, is somewhat obscure. But it's just a short hop from the expressway — and the address shows up on GPS.
The old mill property, when you find it, turns out to be not all that picturesque. The building sits awkwardly on its lot, so you never get a good look at it. But inside, it's a different story. The new owners have supervised an effective renovation, repainting where it was needed, pulling down the TVs that cluttered the bar and bringing in church pews to create a more intimate seating arrangement in the dining room. The building's solid bones, made of stone and wood, have been left intact. Already forgotten are the previous tenants, most of them knucklehead joints.
The executive chef at Birroteca is Cyrus Keefer, who appears to have finally found a home. At a succession of restaurants, Keefer's talents have not always been supported, much less nurtured. But at Birroteca, Keefer told me, he has found a mentor in Birroteca's owner, Robbin Haas.
Haas, a onetime Food & Wine magazine "Best New Chef," is the mind behind the design of Birroteca's opening menu, which is remarkably simple. The big bullet-points are appetizers, bruschettas, salads, pastas and wood-fired pizzas. But there is an exemplary charcuterie program, built around American-produced meats and cheeses.
I liked what I saw, and tasted, of the pizzas. The basic model, topped with Parmesan, fresh herbs and olive oil, had an impressively chewy crust. A specialty pizza, with duck confit, fig-onion jam, Trugole cheese and a sunny duck egg, was beautiful to see and a pleasure to eat.
The emphasis is less on showing off than on using prime ingredients and careful cooking. Take that calamari: Before it's grilled, quickly, on the plancha, a cast-iron griddle, the squid is treated to a confit flavored with lemon, garlic, capers and a touch of rosemary. When it gets to you, it's all impossibly buttery, lavishly tender and bracingly piquant.
Salads are fully considered and served in broad white bowls, as if they mean something. Order one of them to share. Go delicate with salad of arugula and shaved fennel, hand-dressed with olive vinaigrette and tossed with grapes, pine nuts and feta. Or go bold with chopped kale and rapini, their bitterness tamed by a raisin vinaigrette and crisp chopped apples.
A waste of everyone's time elsewhere, polenta is essential eating at Birroteca, where it's been formed, seasoned and grilled to create a thin layer of salty crispiness over molten creaminess. An order of brussels sprouts get the crispy treatment, too. Each sprout is just slightly singed. They are served with a black garlic-lemon aioli and topped with a very thin slice of Coppa ham. You'll never want them served any other way.
Only by comparison do some things hit you as being too simple. A meatball appetizer comes across like a big meatball. The pastas are intended to be a second course, and portioned that way. But their price felt out of line with menu. So did the Family Style special we tried — there's a different one for every night of the week — a plate of four sausages and peppers for $24.
Birroteca is the season's nicest surprise. The name is a beer-ful play on the Italian enoteca, which loosely means "a nice place to get some wine." There is a compelling beer program, focused on regional craft breweries, but the name still comes off a little weirdly, especially for a place that otherwise speaks so clearly for itself with good, embracing atmosphere and focused service.