James Lewis has made a name and a niche for himself in a city that is increasingly famous for its food.
The chef-owner of Bettola, in the Martin Biscuit Building at Birmingham’s Pepper Place, is known for his authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas, but entrees are just as popular and he enjoys quite a loyal following. Customers flock to this trattoria, wine bar and pizza place for quick, convenient counter-service lunches, traditional table-service dinners, and wine and craft cocktails on the patio any time. They’ve been doing so for 12 years.
“It’s been a rewarding journey,” Lewis says. “When we first started, we had Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings who molded the platform for other businesses to come in and start opening up. We saw a need for an upscale, casual environment where people could come on a weekly basis and spend as much as they wanted to or eat on a good budget. The main philosophy behind what we wanted to achieve was real food with good, quality ingredients and offering that at a price point people could afford on a regular basis.
“We wanted things to be approachable. We wanted to give somebody a place to come and call their own,” he said. “Food for me is about home and cooking – my memories of cooking with my grandmother and being around family. We wanted to bring that familiarity to others in an environment they could enjoy.
“Bettola is a lot of things to a lot of different people,” Lewis says, and he’s not afraid to experiment with food in ways that appeal to a variety of tastes. “We want to have things that have root in tradition, but we also want to have things that are rooted in change, in depth of flavor and the meshing of ingredients that are both bold and subtle.”
Dishes at Bettola, subsequently, are delicious and inventive.
Calamari arrostiti has been a perennial favorite from the beginning. An antipasti board is another great way to spend time here. Cheeses might include fior di latte mozzarella, robiola Bosina and Taleggio; meats range from prosciutto di Parma DOP, speck alto and Toscana salami to pork terrine with apricots and pistachios. Lewis’s house-made condiments include pepper jelly, marinated olives and artichoke puree.
For dinner, he pairs gnocchi with 14-hour braised pork shoulder, kale and grape tomatoes. He sets perfectly seared sea scallops atop hazelnut-pesto risotto with spiced oat clusters, confit grape tomatoes and chili oil. Lombatello, oven-seared hanger steak, is served with roasted heirloom carrots, black garlic verjus, pickled spring onions and carrot puree.
The pizza, often simple but always freshly flavorful, is baked in an oven made by a friend of Lewis’s from Naples. The man is a 30-year brick mason.
The floor of the oven has tiles from Sorrento, a small town outside Naples, at the base of Mount Vesuvius.
“They’ve been making the tiles there for over 300 years,” Lewis says. “They’re made with the clay of that volcano. It’s got the perfect amount of heat transfer that you can’t find in any baking brick around here. It’s all wood-fired. We get special wood in from a local gentleman who supplies us with white oak and a few other different smoking woods.”
Lewis practices this kind of authenticity, not only because it makes good business sense but also because it’s the right thing to do. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business from UAB but began training with food early, at age 19, at Plumed Horse in Saratoga, California, with its classic French cuisine.
Lewis continued his cooking education in Europe. In Italy, he learned about pasta – “how to make it, how to understand it’’ – from Antonio Pisaniello, the Sicilian chef at the two Michelin-starred restaurant La Locanda di Bu in Nusco. In Tuscany, he worked with the internationally famous butcher Dario Cecchini at Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano. To perfect his pizza, Lewis traveled to Naples.
“I wanted to understand how an Italian understood food. I didn’t just want to grab a recipe and leave. I wanted to understand the culture, the people, the reasoning behind the way they approach food. And why they are so passionate about it.” They do things differently there, Lewis says. “Italians savor life a little bit more. And I love that aspect. Once people get to experience that, it really gets to be a part of their life. It’s never left mine, and I enjoy sharing that with other people.”
This pursuit of what’s real by a man who surely is a lifelong learner has brought impressive national acclaim. Lewis was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine in 2011. In 2012, he was a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards Best Chef: South.
He insists, though, that what he does is “about sharing. It’s about giving. A lot of chefs approach it, and it’s about themselves. But for me, it was never supposed to be about me. It was supposed to be about what I want to give to others. … I’m enjoying the process, and that’s my gift. But I want to share that. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s the reward for me.”
And so Lewis welcomes visitors to his lovely outdoor space with tables beneath potted olive trees and café lighting. He seats them inside where it’s airy and open, yet still cozy, and they can see the busy, working kitchen and enjoy the mural drawn by a customer’s young daughter.
Lewis is in the process of updating his patio and his kitchen, refreshing his menu and doing a bit of rebranding. But some things will remain the same. Customers still will enjoy that open kitchen. The dishes still will rely upon local and regional purveyors like Snow’s Bend Farm, Stone Hollow Farmstead, Southern Foothills Farm, Belle Meadow Farm and McEwen & Sons. The colorful mural in the dining room will remain a distinctive and absolutely unique focal point of the place.
The chalk mural is more than beautiful: It’s a symbol of Lewis’s willingness to embrace what life offers him.
The girl who drew it was 9 years old when she came in and saw the chalkboard, Lewis says. “We had just put it up, and we didn’t know what we were going to do with it at the time. She asked, ‘Can I draw on it?’ I said, ‘Sure, of course.’ She started doing a little bit, and she asked if she could come back. And it just kept morphing into this month-long drawing excursion that she went on. I told her what I would like to have on it … maybe some animals or a farm, and she just went with it. … That was an interesting month. It was fun. She would get up on this little ladder, and she’d be up there … fully engrossed for hours. She was very passionate about it. … To let her creative flow go was nice and inspiring.”
2930 3rd Avenue South
Birmingham, Alabama 35233
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; Dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality.