Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 19, 2020

Winter is coming! Ok, winter is already here, but the days are getting more bone-chilling by the second, and with that, our need for comfort food is at its most extreme.

Officially second semester seniors, we figure now is the time to knock a few items off of our Baltimore restaurant bucket list before May 21st rolls around (the “g” word is strictly prohibited).

So, this past week, our stomachs (finally) led us to Birroteca, the Italian restaurant in Hampden that we have been dying to go to since it opened in the fall of our sophomore year.

From the outside, it would be generous to say that Birroteca’s appearance is understated. We pulled up to the windowless restaurant on the very quiet Clipper Road and followed the big painted finger to its hidden entrance. The inside of the restaurant was almost as dark as outside, so we couldn’t assess the decor and atmosphere until our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. But the one thing we were positively sure of was the delicious smell coming from the kitchen. Our highly trained noses could already tell that we were in for a treat.

As our table was prepared, we made our way through the dark room of intimate tables and straight to the bar, which was definitely the more casual, bustling part of the restaurant. It was surrounded by high tables and chalkboard walls covered in artisanal cheese and beer options.

To keep our tastebuds occupied until our table was ready, we both ordered Don’t Fig-et About Fall cocktails, which were made with Figuenza Fig Vodka, PUR Blood Orange Liqueur, Lime and Ginger Beer.  They were served with festive candy-cane striped straws and definitely did not disappoint. Soon after, we were seated in this swarming room, which was perfect for the casual dinner we were looking for, though there are a couple of quieter, cozier areas to choose from as well.

And now, sitting atop our stools ready to get down to business, we offer you the moment you’ve all been waiting for — the part about the food! Selecting which dishes to order was a production, as it always is when you throw two impossibly eager foodies together in front of a menu and say “Go!” We persevered, though, asking the waiter merely three times to return for our order: “We need just a couple more minutes,” Big Smile, Head Nod.

We decided to share everything, which is the ideal scenario in our book because we get to taste everything and can take seconds (thirds) of our favorites. The dishes at Birroteca are also, conveniently for us, intended for sharing. So, we started with various apps and sides to share followed by four pizzas. (It’s true we eat a lot and have stomachs bigger than our eyes, but we’ll confess we brought along a posse of co-tasters for this endeavor.)

I, Georgina, came into Birroteca with one wish and one wish only: to try the Brussels sprouts.

This may seem somewhat random (I guess it is) but the thing is I’d read about them and read about them and now I had to have them. The Brussels sprouts at Birroteca were written up in Baltimore Magazine’s Best of Baltimore: Food in August 2014. Upon more research, I learned that a 2012 article in The Sun agreed, quipping, “You’ll never want [Brussels sprouts] served any other way.” I never forgot about them, and, having tried them, we can both say we agree.

So if it isn’t already obvious, we ordered the Brussels sprouts. They were exceptionally crispy but not burnt, and served with coppa and a rich black garlic aioli. Alongside these vegetable gems, which were really unlike any we’ve eaten before, we also chose the meatballs, served with house ricotta and tomato sauce, bruschetta with fresh burrata, exploding cherry tomatoes and basil and a chopped kale salad topped with shaved beets, pumpkin seeds, radishes and sliced pear, all tossed in a raisin vinaigrette.

Our starters were excellent overall and may have even dared to overshadow the pizzas by which Birroteca identifies itself. Hands down, our favorite was the Brussels dish. They were good to taste, no doubt, but their unique preparation put them over the edge. Despite Georgina’s enthusiasm (read: obsession) for the Brussels sprouts, I, Alex, was hesitant about the black garlic aioli. I worried that the garlic flavor would be overwhelming, but I am very happy to report the aioli definitely did not overpower the taste of the vegetable.

Close runners up included the bruschetta, for which the burrata was tender and flavorful and the bread deliciously soft and fresh. The meatballs were a fan favorite of at least two of our fellow tasters, but we felt that they were nothing special. They were good but not flavored notably with spices, and — to put it bluntly — we’ve had better (if you haven’t tried the meatballs from Rao’s Cookbook, drop this News-Letter right now and start cooking). Finally, the kale salad was, in the realm of kale salads, excellent. While Alex has tried to reason otherwise (“It was a highlight of the meal; the kale was so well massaged!”), Georgina stubbornly maintains that, having tasted numerous kale salad iterations, this one would certainly rank toward the top but, at the end of the day, a kale salad is just a kale salad.

Pretty happily surprised by the appetizers, we were even more excited for the pizza than we were at the start of the meal.  The four we chose were Duck Duck Goose (Duck Confit, Fig-Onion Jam, Balsamic Fontina and Asiago, Duck Egg), Cipolla (Pancetta Marmellata, Roasted Cipollini Onions and Shallots, Asiago and Fontina), Prosciutto (Fresh Mozzarella, Melted Cherry Tomatoes, Arugula and Fennel Salad) and finally the Locavore (Roasted Market Vegetables, Pecorino, Fresh Mozzarella and Extra Virgin Olive Oil, or EVOO to those in the know).

Duck Duck Goose was by far the favorite pizza of the online Yelp community. The texture of the duck resembled that of pulled pork and ended up being sweeter than we anticipated, thanks to the fig-onion jam. It was delicious, but more than one slice each might have been a little bit too sweet for our taste.  We chose the Cipolla because it is one of our favorites at competing pizza paradise, Iggies.

The flavor we know and love was there, but the crust to topping ratio made the pizza dryer than we would have liked. The arugula and fennel salad added a nice crunch to the Prosciutto pizza and its bitter flavor was a great compliment to the sweet melted tomatoes and prosciutto. But, amazingly enough, the Locavore was our favorite pizza by far. The sharpness of the pecorino cheese stood out underneath the fresh veggies, which were very tasty despite being hard to identify because they were shaved so thinly.

Overall, we thought the pizza was solid. Its authentic, homemade crust and fresh, local ingredients were great, but we weren’t as blown away by the pizzas as we were by the appetizers.

Although we think we might be greater fans of the pizza at Iggies (well, is it the pizza we prefer, or simply the whole experience plus dog murals galore?), the Italian appetizers at Birroteca rivalled those in the heart of Little Italy. We recommend ordering more of those smaller plates and having pizza as a complement to the meal.

We’re thrilled we finally made it to Birroteca, and now that we’ve experienced those Brussels sprouts first hand, we will no doubt be back for more very soon. Until next time, fellow foodies!

P.S. if you have any suggestions for our final semester of eating (oh, and studying) in Bmore, please let us know!

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