There's a lot going on inside Bottega Americano.
The 8,000-square-foot Italian "food hall" is a behemoth, taking up nearly half a block in the East Village, where it occupies the Island Avenue level of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. It includes several food stations, including charcuterie, pizza/pasta, raw seafood and cocktails, each with its own counter seating that puts guests face to face with cooks tossing pies in the air and rolling out fresh pasta.
Then there's the marketplace deli counter, packed with premade foods from panini to hot and cold sides, soup, dessert and a proper coffee bar dealing strong, delicious drinks.
The high-class cafeteria concept intends for locals, including law students, to stop in multiple times a day for coffee, a snack or even to grab a bag of house-made ravioli to cook at home. The wine list is big, and there's also a late night happy hour menu (10:30 p.m. to close) with cocktails by Snake Oil.
"Chuck B.," a Thomas Jefferson law student who wishes to remain anonymous, said to me in an email that if anything, he's excited about the full bar. "Our school is a little sewing circle, so I can just imagine people gossiping about how Suzy was having a drink with Johnny at B.A. last night."
Like many, Chuck thinks B.A. is beautiful, and he's excited to have options. But he also found the prices to be high, and despite having a 10 percent student discount, he said he'll probably stick to patronizing smaller, less expensive businesses in the area for his day-to-day needs.
B.A. presents itself as the first concept of its kind in San Diego, but that dismisses Cremolose (2012-2013), which did much of the same on a smaller scale and sans the gourmet labeling. It was pretty good, and short-lived.
Like anyone frothing from the hype of the biggest restaurant opening this summer, I couldn't wait to try executive chef David Warner's modern Italian fare. For dinner, we opted to sit at the pizza bar. Service was slick and on-point.
Gnocchi with smoked tomato sauce and burrata ($14) was tasty and satisfying, but many places in town also make it fresh and delicious, though likely more than three feet away from where you sit. Our side of wood-fired baby eggplants ($7) desperately needed salt and had tough, inedible ends. But the yellowtail crudo ($14) was the real head scratcher with thick slices of raw fish poking through apples, celery root puree, and an overabundance of brown butter "crumbles" that frankly didn't taste like they belonged on the dish at all. The menu description included "green goddess," yet everything sat on what looked and tasted like ranch dressing.
But Bottega Americano is an enchanting place for food lovers, immersing diners in the food-making process from the comfort of their seats. And, despite its buzzing grandeur, Thomas Schoos' (Searsucker, Puesto) design amid the culinary factory evokes a chill, oasis vibe even though it's just off the trolley tracks.
For lunch the following day, I opted for the marketplace experience. The Mary's chicken panini (available premade, along with seven other options at the counter) was quite good, if not a bit small for the $9 price tag. But my soup never came, and when I asked a server about it, he said that if I ordered from the marketplace he "wouldn't know where to find it." After two more confused employees got involved, it finally arrived.
Cannellini bean and pancetta soup ($9) was something you'd expect from Nonna's kitchen. At the end of the day, it wound up being just a big bowl of bean soup. It's too bad a shred of the creativity that went into the yellowtail crudo didn't make its way into updating this (albeit tasty) peasant fare.
For now, Bottega Americano has all the ingredients to become a one-of-a-kind destination in San Diego. Just be patient, in beautiful surroundings, while they try to get a handle on all the moving parts.
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org