1520 Clipper Road, Baltimore, MD 21211 (http://www.bmorebirroteca.com/home)
** and 1/2 (Good/Very Good)
Growing up in the suburbs of the DMV, whenever we made the trek up to Baltimore, there were only two destinations: the Inner Harbor/Aquarium or Camden Yards. In recent years, however, Baltimore has seen a real resurgence within its dining scene: Mid-Atlantic-centric menus (Spike Gjerde), big name chefs (Michael Mina), and neighbors expanding into the city (Bryan Voltaggio). So during a recent outing with my family, when I decided to break them out of their comfort zone and head toward the Hampden/Clipper Mill area and Birroteca, I received more than one puzzled look. But, by the time the meal was over, everyone seemed to understand that there was a lot more to Charm City than the Inner Harbor.
Birroteca, established in 2012, describes its food as “modern, rustic Italian,” and features a lengthy list of craft beers as well as artisanal pizzas, pastas, charcuterie, and family-style entrees. Entering the two-floor building – which appears to be, like many of the local buildings, an old mill – you are immediately hit with the exposed brick and wood accents that feature so prominently in new restaurants. The first floor of the restaurant houses a dining room and a large bar, while the second floor is comprised of a smaller dining room and a side bar. The dining room might best be described as quaint, and involves getting to know your [very closely sat] neighbors. The common thread on both floors: the noise. Once again, the hard surfaces make for a noticeable din that carries throughout the restaurant. More than once through the meal, I feel as though I’m yelling to everyone at the table just to be heard.
We begin our meal with a variety of starters, including the Eggplant Fries, Calamari Alla Plancha, Crisp Brussels Sprouts, and Meatballs. The fries a
re crisp and golden, with barely a hint of oil in the interior. Paired with a red pepper aioli, they are a profoundly addictive snack. Calamari is perfectly tender, given plenty of punch with garlic, and the brine of capers; another winner. The meatballs, unfortunately, are nothing to write home about. While I love the protein as a topping on the Double D Pizza, the appetizer version, paired with house-made ricotta and tomato sauce, lacks pop.
Continuing onto our entrees, we opt to share three of the pizzas: the aforementioned Double D, with meatballs, fresh mozzarella, and basil; Spicy Fennel
Sausage, with fresh mozzarella, oregano, and mushrooms; and the Cipolla, with pancetta marmalade, Asiago, Fontina, and roasted onions and shallots. Birroteca pizzas all feature excellent char on the crust and good chew to the dough. The spicy sausage made for a flavorful and bold tasting pie; while the meatball used the protein much more effectively than the appetizer, with cherry tomatoes adding bursts of acidity. The Cipolla, meanwhile, leaned towards overly sweet. With the marmalade and roasted onions, the balance of the flavors would have been better served with some a savory addition. Without it, the pizza tasted closer to a dessert.
A more well balanced use of sweet: the nightly family-style special, Figgy Piggy, a braised pork shank served alongside creamy parmesan polenta and arugula. While the lacquer on the exterior was deliciously sweet and savory, the interior of the dense pork shank felt a bit under-seasoned. That said, the arugula provides a beautiful peppery note that really rounds out the dish. Balance was something needed with the Herbed Gnocchi. The potato pasta, light and airy, and the duck confit were well cooked, but the dish suffered from a sauce in need of acidity and brightness.
After feasting heavily on dinner, dessert was kept simple: a Limoncello Cheesecake for the table to share. Light, bright, and refreshing, the cheesecake kept the tartness of the limoncello which paired perfectly with a smooth ricotta cake. The airy delight is a must-order if you happen to find it on the menu.
Birroteca’s service, while friendly, can be lacking at times. More than once during the meal, utensils are haphazardly dropped (literally) onto the table. There are also moments where I feel as though I have to track down our waitress to place an order. It’s a credit to the crew’s cheery nature, which more than makes up for its deficiencies.
Baltimore, as we here at Chew Party of Two have come to know over the years, is a growing and developing food city. And restaurants like Birroteca are a big part of the reason why. Bottom line: get out of your Baltimore comfort zone, and head north, for craft beer and even better crafted food.
Atmosphere: The laid back bar and restaurant concept – housed in an old mill – features lots of wood and brick. A lively and energetic scene can be found within. The bar is home to a lengthy list of draft beer, and the menu contains plenty of items to share. The servers are all friendly and more willing to help, though they disappear at times.
Noise: Loud. There’s no getting around the fact that a minimalist building featuring hard floors, exposed brick, and a packed crowd makes for a boisterous time. There were moments throughout our dinner where I had to listen carefully, or speak at a volume just below a shout in order to be heard.
Recommended Dishes: Eggplant Fries, Calamari Alla Plancha, Crisp Brussel Sprouts, Double D Pizza, Spicy Fennel Sausage Pizza, Figgy Piggy, Limoncello Cheesecake
Reservations: Recommended. During our Saturday night dinner at 6:15pm, the restaurant was completely full, with crowds around the bar – sometimes two people deep – either having a drink or waiting for a table to open up.
$$$ – $50 to $100 for dinner for two