Sometimes a curse is broken by a spell, and suddenly everything is put to rights. At other times, the break takes place in increments until one day there is the realization that the power of the curse is no more. The latter form seems to be in place at Botticelli's, a new Italian eatery in a South Congress location plagued by failed ventures.
It seems improbable that a restaurant couldn't make a go of it on South Congress. After all, this is one of the liveliest boulevards in the city, with hundreds of pedestrians taking in the myriad shops and restaurants that line the street. Located near the Continental Club, the space is cozy and charming inside, conjuring up memories of urban bistros in older, East Coast cities. Pass through the narrow dining room, and make your way down a hall, and a gorgeous, tree-canopied fenced garden unfolds with an outdoor bar, additional dining tables, and live music. Still, the location has seen two cafes fizzle and fail in recent succession. We began to wonder if the space was just snakebit. If it is, the venom doesn't appear to be lethal anymore.
The partners behind Botticelli's seem to realize what a treasure they have in their location. Crisp, white linens and flickering candles on the tables add a romantic air to the stone-walled room. Crowds – which, in the words of the great Yogi Berra, previously "stayed away in droves" – have flocked to the new restaurant, lending it a buzzing atmosphere. The attempt to add sidewalk dining is doubtful, however. The two-top tables placed outside on the crowded sidewalk offer an experience akin to dining on the grounds of the Austin City Limits Festival. Still, they provide a nice enticement to passersby to take a peek inside and peruse the menu. More than a few decide to stay. We'd venture that many will decide to return, as well.
While the menu intrigues, it's a bit of a puzzle. Appetizers vs. entrées aren't clearly delineated; items are variously described or left a mystery, and vegetarian options are at a minimum. Luckily, the waitstaff is friendly and well-informed and therefore adept at providing expert guidance.
We began with the Gnocchi Alla Norcina ($9), described as accompanied by black truffle, anchovies, capers, and garlic. A heady, potentially pucker-inducing combination. It was surprisingly mild, however, with just the right amount of tang from the garlic and capers. The anchovies and black truffles must have been waved over the bowl, like vermouth in a dry martini, so faint was their presence. Still, the gnocchi was fluffy and toothsome and dressed with some fruity olive oil. Sliced speck ($11), an unfortunately named pork product, comes with roasted peaches, olive oil, and shaved Parmesan. The meat is akin to prosciutto and is lovely with the delicately diced fruit and generous shavings of cheese. Some bread to mop up the mess would have helped with the partaking of the dish, however. As it was, we poked with a variety of forks and fingers.
Perhaps Botticelli Bread might have filled the bill, but we wondered about a $12 loaf of bread. Turns out it's a tasty, meat-stuffed entrée. Instead of serving as a mop for the appetizer, we settled on it as one of our entrées. It is served sliced on a wooden breadboard, and the slices reveal the generous stuffing. It's hearty, football food, the kind you imagine Bears fans wolfing down in the Windy City. Which is fitting, as the food is described as Chicago-style Italian.
Less ham-fisted options we've tried are the Ricotta Agnolotti ($17) and striped bass ($18). The former is one of two vegetarian options (the Botticelli Bread also comes in a vegetarian form with roasted vegetables and ricotta) and features pasta pillows stuffed with ricotta and tossed with olive oil, cherry-tomato halves, and herbs. It's a delicate dish that almost veers to bland unless the fork full includes tomato and the coarsely chopped herbs. When all those flavors come together, it's a delicate delight.
The bass is accompanied by a roasted cauliflower gratin, crisp sticks of green apple, and olive oil. It was a lovely, flaky fish that played nicely off the flavors and textures of the whole dish. It's one of the most sophisticated offerings on a menu that features several casual options like the above-mentioned "bread," a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich, an Italian sausage sandwich, and a multimeat "Pasquale" sandwich.
We had occasion to sample another sophisticated dish with a special of the night: Clams With Sweet Vermouth and Roasted Peppers Over Pappardelle Pasta ($20). It was a sweet success; the delicate little clams were enhanced by the vermouth and silky olive oil. One clam did fail to open and still made it to our plate, however. Still, we ran the thick ribbons of pasta over the plate to get every morsel of the dish. The word from management is that a revamped fall menu will be rolled out this week, and some of these items will be at least temporarily retired and new recipes introduced; don't be surprised if some dishes are unavailable.
On a recent, crowded night on the patio, we had a friendly and knowledgeable waiter who gained our trust throughout the meal. When we inquired about desserts, he was quick to suggest the goat-cheese cheesecake ($6) and just as quick to suggest we steer clear of an ice-cream offering. He didn't need to tell us twice, so we have no experience with that frozen concoction. The cheesecake, however, was a success just as he predicted. The tang of the cheese was discernible but not overwhelming, and it gave the cake a lovely, crumbly texture. It's a nice contrast to the strictly cream-cheese variety that is so common on American tables. The same roasted peaches from the speck appetizer attractively garnished the plate, but despite roasting, their flavor was all but nonexistent. It's been a sad year for peach lovers.
While the mood indoors is one of a sophisticated, boisterous hot spot, out back the patio atmosphere is one of an urban oasis and pure Austin. It unfolds like a secret garden and feels like a hideout. There's live music (natch) that, despite the proximity of the band, didn't obliterate conversation. The high walls of the wood fence gave a feeling of privacy, and a huge live oak tree is an umbrella over the whole area. Flickering gaslight sconces on the walls and Victorian colored-glass candles on tables add to the convivial air. Someone (customer? employee? whimsical Austinite?) was offering jars of bubbles and wands throughout the patio on a recent Friday night. Soon, bouquets of bubbles floated into the night sky, and our dining guest, who had recently returned to Austin after a holiday away, was reminded of why she now lives here.
Different cultures offer different methods for banishing a curse or a cursed location. Incantations, exorcism, and offerings to various gods are just a few of the remedies suggested. At Botticelli's, they're not calling in priests with holy water for a quick fix. They're relying on a lovely setting, good food, live music, a convivial atmosphere, and libations. And the occasional offering of bubbles.
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