When I wandered into Osteria la Bottiglia for the first time after a visit to the Marion Square farmers market, I was immediately transported to my time abroad in college, exploring wine and tapas bars in Italy, Spain, and Austria. The substantial stone and brick floors and walls, simple wood furniture and white tablecloths, wood mirrors and picture frames, and rustic plank ceiling all feel authentically European. The place is cave-like (think wine-cave-like), a cool and welcoming break from the hot sun.
Veteran Charleston restaurateur Massimiliano Sarrocchi started both Il Cortile del Re and Pane e Vino before Osteria, so it's no surprise that this venture feels well conceived. It's modeled after the Italian osterias that, as the website says, traditionally focus on warmly hosting regular patrons with simple food, wine, and drinks, not on serving haute cuisine. As a wine bar or restaurant, Osteria is definitely an original in Charleston (Bin 152 and Enoteca are great spots, but Osteria is bigger, serves lunch and dinner, and has a broader selection of food and a full bar). The place feels like the real deal, so I had high expectations.
At lunch, Osteria's menu is made up of soups ($3 cup, $6 bowl) like white bean and rosemary, tomato basil, and fresh asparagus with parmesan. There are salads ($8.50), like the traditional caprese and the campagnola, made with arugula, steamed artichokes, and shaved pecorino. There are sandwiches like the alpino ($8) made with brie, speck, and mushrooms, and both traditional and vegetarian lasagna ($10). (For $11 you can choose two lunch items and a drink.) The dinner menu is a little more involved and includes a selection of bruschetta ($6), small plates like Sardinian-style baby octopus ($12), salmon and swordfish carpaccio ($12), and an array of handmade pastas ($12-$18), in addition to a few larger plates and daily specials.
On a recent lunch visit the white bean and rosemary soup was a really good, simple blend of puréed white beans in broth. It was thinner than I imagined, but the flavor was rich and earthy, brightened with flecks of fresh rosemary and drizzled with olive oil. The vegetarian lasagna was good too: tender, handmade lasagna noodles layered with thinly sliced zucchini, spinach, cheese, tomato sauce, and fresh herbs. Along with the white bean soup, it seemed like a good deal at $13, and I left lunch happy.
On another visit, a friend and I started off with a couple Negronis, which you probably know is a slightly bitter, red-tinted cocktail made with gin, campari, and vermouth. It's an acquired taste due to its bitterness, and the Negronis at Osteria were among the best I've ever had. Warmed by the cool drinks, we sat down at our table and picked out a few small plates to start. We were both drawn to the red cabbage salad with mustard vinaigrette, gorgonzola, and guanciale ($9). Its combination of ingredients — the earthy and slightly bitter cabbage, bright mustard, bold gorgonzola, and porky guanciale (cured pork jowl) sounded mouth-watering. But when it arrived, we were disappointed. The texture of the cabbage was right on, but it lacked taste and flavor. There was only a hint of those bold contrasting and complementing flavors that we were looking forward to.
The baby octopus served in spicy tomato sauce, Sardinian style ($12), also sounded really good and ended up being better than the cabbage salad. The pint-sized octopi were cooked just until tender and not at all tough, which is the hardest thing to get right about octopus. The smoky paprika-spiked tomato sauce in which they were swimming was good too, but we thought there was too much of it and that it overpowered the perfectly cooked mollusks. We wished they'd been drizzled with the sauce instead and served with something contrasting alongside, like lightly dressed arugula, some chickpeas, or even just a flash of freshly chopped parsley and mint with a squeeze of lemon. Along the same lines, the marinated anchovies with parsley pesto ($8.50) were amazing in quality and beautifully presented, but the four or five filets were the only thing on the plate apart from a drizzle of olive oil and a hint of that parsley pesto. Despite the clean ocean flavor of the anchovies, the dish felt spare and left us wanting more. Some toasted bread would have been a nice addition, too.
For our main dishes, we went off the menu and ordered two of the specials. The gnocchi with lamb ragu sounded great and ended up pretty good, but honestly wasn't as good as gnocchi dishes I've had elsewhere in town. I liked the gnocchi's texture, but thought the sauce was a little too thick and dry, and again, it could have been elevated with the simple addition of freshly chopped herbs and a little grated orange or lemon zest. Fair or not, I found myself comparing it to FIG's ricotta gnocchi with lamb ragu and mint and missed the combination of flavors in that dish.
My friend ordered the wreckfish, which was pan-roasted and served over polenta then topped with a flavor-packed and piquant blend of tomatoes, olives, capers, and onions. This special worked better than the gnocchi. The seasoning and flavors were right on, and the polenta was some of the silkiest I've had. My friend wished the fish hadn't been so thoroughly cooked, but to be fair it would probably have been well done in Italy, too.
Judging by the bustling bar and dining room at Osteria alone, it's a welcome complement to Charleston's downtown scene. But because Osteria's feel and menu set such a high bar, perhaps because it feels so authentic, I found myself wishing that the cooking itself had been more impressive. Here's hoping it gets there.