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Restaurant Review: Bottega Americano

Bottega Americano is the new breed of highly ambitious American restaurant


Bottega Americano

1195 Island Avenue,
San Diego

Troy's Picks:
Yellowtail Crudo
Baby Beet Salad
Lamb Sugo

Multitasking is a disease of our generation. Most experts agree it’s fatal. It’s hard being one thing, let alone three or five. When we lose focus, we tend to lose. And Bottega Americano in the East Village has a lot to focus on. There’s the oven, which cranks out everything from pizzas to roasted meats. There’s the pasta station, where they make fresh bucatini, pappardelle, and whatever shape tickles the fancy. There’s the espresso bar. And the bar bar. There’s the bakery. And the gourmet retail.

This is the new American restaurant—an all-in-one food-osphere, vertically integrated for your one-stop-chomping pleasure. Whereas Whole Foods is a retailer first and casual restaurant second, places like Eataly in NYC, Bottega Louie in L.A., and Bottega Americano are restaurants first and casual retailers on the side. Or they can be seen as miniaturizations of the Ferry Building/Pike Place concept, where multiple food vendors create a diverse food destination under one sprawling roof. They could even be seen as massively upscaled versions of another station-to-station food concept in San Diego: Souplantation.

You could argue that many all-day restaurants do what Bottega does. You can sit and order coffee/lunch/dinner/drinks and buy a bottle of whatever you loved on the way out. So why does Bottega’s concept feel kind of new? It’s a simple process of demarcation, with each station laid out as its own entity. Bottega has clearly planted its flag in multiplicity, trying to be everything to everyone.

The question with Bottega is not talent. General Manager Greg Van de Velde trained in fine dining for years at Bertrand at Mister A’s. A duo of chefs with different skill sets oversees the kitchens. The first is Giuseppe Ciuffa, a self-made restaurateur and caterer with deep Italian roots who can handle operations of the large, cranking mechanism. The other is executive chef David Warner, formerly at JRDN in Pacific Beach.  

SOMETHING TO CROW ABOUT: Mary’s Farm roasted chicken with fregola and Reggiano sauce

The question with Bottega is focus. In such high-rent environs (the bottom floor of the new Thomas Jefferson School of Law), there’s pressure. Each component (pizza, charcuterie, pasta, espresso, cocktails, etc.) must sing at a more refined frequency. In making everything a stated priority as a business model, they’ve added due pressure on each to live up to the billing. Whereas if you just claimed to be an exceptional pizza restaurant, it’s not terribly important that you make a world-class cappuccino or Negroni.

Bottega looks very nice. Designer Thomas Schoos (Tao in Vegas, Searsucker and Puesto in San Diego) has a proven track record of pretty things. Here I worry he’s struck a visual chord too close to L.A.’s Bottega Louie, a restaurant with a similar concept and name. It’s a clean, Humphrey Bogartian, white-and-black interior. Blown-up ’50s photos serve as wallpaper, evoking deceased glamour. A vintage motor scooter is parked out front, evoking the two-wheel psychos of Italy. Massive structural pillars are stacked with firewood, evoking fire and wood. A leg of charcuterie is pinched in a beautiful red machine, ready to be perfectly, thinly sliced. Glass jars are filled with pickled foods, like culinary science experiments. Multicolored pasta hangs in sheets, slightly dust-clouded with flour. Derivative or not, the space is a nice juxtaposition between the rustic and the immaculate. Like a Catholic wedding swallowed Little House on the Prairie.

Similar to Searsucker when it first opened downtown, Bottega feels alive with humans, noise, and chatter. That’s partially because it’s loud in there. A hard-surface echo chamber. That makes Bottega a social experience, not a romantic one. Unless you like your romance loud.

The menu is separated into nine parts: salumi/cheese, snacks, soup/salad/antipasti, seafood/crudo, pasta, main dishes, oven-roasted sides, pizza, and desserts. Their meats are well-respected (prosciutto San Daniele, pistachio mortadella, finocchiona). Their cheeses are world-class drippers and stinkers (Robiola Tre Latti, Casatica di Bufala, etc.)

FIT FOR A GODDESS: Yellowtail crudo with green goddess dressing, green apple, celery root, and brown butter crumble

Both nights our service is pretty flawless, relatively punctual. We don’t see any tables looking around for service, needily craning their necks or raising their hands like a fifth-grader who really has to go.

Beets are the steaky vegetable of the moment, and Bottega’s pickled baby beet salad with goat cheese, pumpkin seed brittle, Asian pear, and arugula is very good. From the crudo section, be sure to order the yellowtail with green goddess dressing, thinly sliced green apple, celery root, and brown butter crumble. Brown butter with sushi is an underutilized combo, the deeply cooked, umami-packed butter playing perfect foil to the raw, bright fish. We order it another night and the quality of the fish is sub-par, taking the dish with it.  

The octopus crudo is a winner, with two perfectly braised, thick slabs of bacon bookending what is essentially a salad with frisée, roasted yams, and romesco. The scallop crudo doesn’t work nearly as well, with pickled mushrooms, pear, radish, butternut squash, and basil. It’s almost all high notes and the pickled mushrooms, an Italian delicacy, bully the other flavors.

BEET THAT: Pickled baby beet salad with goat cheese, pumpkin seed brittle, Asian pear, and arugula

Bottega’s pizzas, cooked in the oven before your hypnotized eyes, are nicely done. Ciuffa is an Italian. That’s a nice oven. Goodness should be expected. The crust may not be as cooked as I like it—a few seconds longer and you’d get deep caramelization and a few “leopard spots” (char marks) that lots of great pies have.

From the pasta section, Warner’s braised lamb sugo with pecorino over pappardelle is a dish you should make a priority in your life. The house-made pasta is perfectly al dente. The sugo is extra delicious with a bit of brown sugar. The duck ragu fuzi is also solid with parsnip, smoked ricotta, and tart huckleberry cutting through the fat. The bucatini with braised octopus, though, is a near-perfect disaster. The spice level is high enough to make you wonder if a spurned ex is running the kitchen, and it’s hard to taste much beyond the bitter radicchio. So we switch focus to the butternut squash ravioli with goat cheese, brown butter, sage, and braised kale—a good dish, if not terribly original.

We have very few complaints when it comes to Bottega’s entrees. A Mary’s Farm chicken (the de facto ethical bird for restaurants who care about caring) has a perfectly crispy skin that needs just a touch more seasoning. But the accompanying Marsala-esque Reggiano sauce covering the fregola (pasta shaped like couscous) is wonderful. The lamb osso bucco is also complaint-free, with mascarpone polenta, braised cavolo nero (black kale), and a pine nut-mint gremolata. Normally, I shy away from salmon at restaurants, due to sustainability issues, boredom, and the fact that it’s most often the fish that tastes “fishy” if a restaurant is cutting corners. But a member of our party orders it and it’s the best thing on the table, with a delicious lemon brodetto (seafood broth) and pistachio pesto.

Feeling Peckish: Braised lamb sugo with pecorino over pappardelle

Halfway through a late dinner one night, the pastry station—which is essentially the “greeting area” of the restaurant—goes dark. It’s still a long way from closing time, and now the restaurant looks partially closed. A very visible attraction has been shut down. The marketplace also isn’t teeming with gourmands, despite some good bottega buys (ceci bean hummus, rotisserie chickens, truffle honey, housemade sauces, charcuterie, Bottega pizza dough, etc.). It makes me think they’re still working out the quirks of trying to be everything to everyone, or everyone doesn’t yet know that Bottega is their everything.

I will say this, though. That pastry case’s chocolate chip cookie is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of overeating. I now regularly bring them to my family to prove I still love them.

At the end of the day, Bottega is a big, ambitious machine with a lot of cylinders—all of which will need to fire for it to sustain success. Right now it feels about 80 percent on fire. If they can get it all up to snuff without cutting quality corners, it’ll be a successful East Village staple for a long time to come.  

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