Eating Italian in Birmingham

A story of lust and liver and communists.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read Hammer and Plow, a history of communism in Alabama. That’s when I came upon this quote:

“It is an industrial monster sprung up in the midst of a slow-moving pastoral. It does not belong—and yet it is one of the many proofs that Alabama is an amazing country, heterogeneous, grotesque, full of incredible contrasts. Birmingham is a new city in 
an old land.”

I recognized the rationale for the statement. Birmingham’s size and industrial might made it different from other Alabama cities. But I couldn’t really process the sentiment. And then, a recent dinner at Bottega, Frank Stitt’s 20-year-old Italian restaurant, in the city’s Highlands neighborhood, drove the point home.

We ate our way through at least half of the menu. Frito misto, bright with lemon and salt. Veal liver, smothered with caramelized onions and served atop planked polenta. Herb-rubbed porterhouse on a bed of arugula. And, best of all, a Tuscan egg salad of frisée and other young greens, tossed with pancetta and scrambled eggs, and, in a brilliant flourish, topped with a brace of fried Apalachicola oysters.

I’d eaten the dish many times before. Originally at Beppe, Cesare Casella’s New York City homage to his hometown of Lucca, Italy. And then at Lupa, also in New York City, where the menu paid appropriate homage to Cesare. And now, here at Bottega, where, although the menu doesn’t lay laurels at Cesare’s feet, the execution of the dish—and the Stitt-devised addition of fried oysters—conjures the spirit of the wild man from Maremma.

One taste and I realized that I hadn’t been paying sufficient attention to Bottega.

I travel through Birmingham often. And, as often as I can, I eat dinner at Stitt’s first restaurant, Highland’s Bar and Grill, home of dishes like grits soufflé with country ham and rabbit pilau. It has been my custom to skip Bottega, because some feeble part of me, some small and myopic and insecure part of me, has always wondered, with a smugness I don’t care to recognize as my own, “How good can Italian food get in Birmingham?”

And there I was, eyeing another forkful of veal liver, facing down how good it can be. Really good. Based upon recent dinners, I’d put Bottega in a league with Osteria, Mark Vetri’s new place in Philadelphia. What’s more, here was Italian food with a local sensibility, Italian food constructed from a southern larder, Italian food like ravioli with crawfish, candied lemon, and Tabasco.

Close readers will no doubt note that Frank Stitt has a new cookbook out. It’s called, appropriately enough, Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita. It’s a beautiful tome, one of Artisan’s 40-buck objects of lust and lush photographs.

Leafing through it now, I recognize that, in addition to serving as a calling card for a chef, in addition to functioning as a money-making answer to a patron’s request for a recipe, the act of publishing a book shines a bright light on a restaurant, framing an old friend in a flattering light, compelling diners to see a place anew.

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