Bottega is a tiny BYOB with big flavors

In the 12 years since it was designated an Arts & Entertainment District by the state government, Baltimore’s Station North has blossomed. The amalgam of neighborhoods just north of Pennsylvania Station has become a destination for all things artsy and one of the city’s hottest food areas.

Bottega, a tiny BYOB that opened last year in the western corner of the district, is one of the restaurants attracting foodie crowds — and for good reason. The ever-changing menu, inspired by Tuscan flavors, manages to be creative without pretense. Bottega’s food is interesting, but it’s also approachable and great.

On an early summer night, the menu — written on several chalkboards — included two crostini options, two salads and a handful of entrées.

Our first dish, crostini with oxtail and rhubarb jam, took us on a journey with each bite. The flavor was first savory, followed by a hint of sweetness. Then, at the end of the bite, a bit of spicy heat emerged. Both the flavors and the dish’s intriguing texture — crunchy toasted bread and slippery-smooth oxtail and rhubarb — were thoughtful and deliberate. The appetizer looked simple, though it was anything but.

A salad of roasted tomatoes, bright greens and gooey burrata cheese was less complex but, thanks to the expert seasoning of the tomatoes and absolute freshness of the cheese, just as impressive.

An entrée of braised pork shank, well-seasoned (we thought we detected a hint of cardamom) and cooked until tender, was paired with a salad of greens and mushrooms, dressed with tart, mustardy dressing. Even more tart, a sprinkling of pickled vegetables added acidity to the plate. On their own, the vegetables were wince-inducing — too much pickle for us to handle. But eaten with the pork, they were bright and fun.

An even bigger hit, the lamb crepinette was a take on two classic pairings: lamb and mint, and mint and peas. The crepinette — an oblong patty of ground, seasoned lamb similar to a large meatball — was tender, savory and cooked just right. It sat in the middle of a plateful of sweet peas sprinkled with crispy fried mint leaves — a smart and delicious way to make traditional flavors shine.

We’d heard rumors about the intense deliciousness of Bottega’s salted caramel and chocolate pie, and it lived up to the hype. Our slice was small but satisfying, with thick layers of caramel and dark chocolate topping a chocolate cookie crust (comically, made with crushed Teddy Grahams). A sprinkle of sea salt on top added interesting flavor and a welcome bit of crunch.

The other dessert option, lemon yogurt panna cotta with strawberries, was much lighter than the pie but just as flavorful — an ideal way to end dinner on a fresh note.

The meal’s pacing was spot on; we took our time and didn’t notice any lags between courses. With only about 20 seats and a small staff to match, Bottega is rustic, charming and tiny. Though it was full during our entire visit (reservations are a must), both the kitchen and our server handled the crowd with grace and ease.

We lingered for a few minutes, over dessert and espresso, feeling sated. Satisfied as we were, we couldn’t help eyeing other tables’ food as it was delivered — we were sorry we weren’t able to order more of the menu to try.

Before we were even out the door, we were plotting our return. The menu will likely have changed by then, and we can’t wait to see what’s written on that chalkboard next time.

The vibe: 
Bottega is tiny and filled with rustic charm, from the rough wood accents to pottery-stocked open shelving on one long wall. Everyone’s there for the food; the small space encourages a community atmosphere, with diners striking up conversations as they check out each other’s food.

You’ll fit in wearing: Casual attire, from khakis to dresses. The Bottega crowd is foodie, not flashy.

Don’t miss: Bottega’s salted caramel and chocolate pie — it’s the stuff of legends. Dense, sweet and salty, the pie pairs a thick caramel center with dense chocolate and a sprinkle of sea salt. It’s rich, and you’ll savor every bite.

For the kids: Bottega’s atmosphere is casual enough for kids, though pickier eaters may not appreciate the menu’s careful flavors and creative turns.

Reservations: Accepted.

Price range: Appetizers $7.25 to $12.50.Entrées $20 to $25.

Parking: Street parking.

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