In its April, 2009 edition Saveur magazine feted “12 restaurants that matter,” profiling a dozen restaurants that “represent the best of dining in America today.” Although that title may at first browse sound a bit condescending, the premise of the article was that restaurants are special places. ”Everybody has to eat, but going out to eat is a choice.”
The one choice of the Saveur sages which most intrigued me was a restaurant in Boston that had been open for less than one year, but which had already been drawing rave reviews. It wasn’t those reviews that likely swayed the decision to name Sportello one of a distinctive dozen. It was probably the execution of a concept under the masterful hands of a creative genius.
Sportello is an Italian word for counter service and the restaurant is certainly based on that concept. As a modern interpretation of the classic diner, Sportello has only a handful of traditional tables. Most of the seating is on a serpentine counter that zigs and zags around the room like the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag of the American Revolution. Padded stools in close proximity to one another mean there are no strangers here. This has a way of establishing a convivial mood in which joviality and good company matter as much as the food.
Belying this diner-like concept and vibe are upscale and modern touches in which shades of white, gray and black dominate. There is absolutely no formica here nor will you find squared tiles. Some diners will have a direct view of the restaurant’s open kitchen from which an energetic staff flits to and fro the maze-like counter taking and delivering orders. This is wholly unlike the greasy spoon diner concept of the 50s. The menu is trattoria-inspired yet minimalist and artisanal at the same time.
Sportello is the brainchild of Barbara Lynch, a Boston chef and restaurant impresario with an impressive pedigree. Raised in the projects of South Boston, she ascended through the ranks on sheer determination, grit and wit to ultimately gain recognition as one of the very best chefs in America, a James Beard award-winning chef whose first restaurant was named one of America’s 50 best by Gourmet magazine. If she hasn’t already eclipsed celebrity chef Todd English for whom she once worked, she is well on her way to doing so.
The signage for Sportello is painted on a large picture window, making it marginally visible from the street. The restaurant is not at street level, but up two flights of stairs. It has the feel of a real big city neighborhood restaurant, one which can stand out despite not being surrounded by other restaurants. It’s a destination restaurant; patrons generally have Sportello on their minds when they venture into the area.
Unlike the menus at some Italian restaurants which are veritable compendiums of everything that is good and not so good about Italian food, the dinner menu at Sportello seems somewhat abbreviated with but a half-dozen appetizers and a like number of entrees, most of which might be classified as upscale.
Not much time elapses before a plate of sliced Scali bread is delivered to your table with an accompaniment of a creamy whipped ricotta with fig jam, olive oil and sea salt. Most Bostonians, whether or not they’re Italian, grew up with Scali bread, a shiny, mahogany loaf coated with sesame seeds. The bread is sliced thickly and served slightly warm. It has a nice density in the best sense of the word.
The ricotta is rich and creamy, the fig jam lusciously sweet and the combination is like true love, a joining of wholly compatible ingredients to form a magnificent composite. The sea salt and olive oil add their own intrinsic qualities to make an amazing dip even better, if possible.
Antipasti (an Italian word for “before the meal) is the traditional first course of a formal Italian meal. At Sportello, antipasti is the most expensive appetizer offered, but one which shouldn’t be missed. A large plate of cured meats, olives, roasted onions, beans and cheese will decorate your table like a magnificent and delicious centerpiece.
The cured meats are quintessentially Italian, the types of meats a well-practiced butcher would have cured with the detailed precision of a master: sopressata (a dry-cured salami), capicola (a Neopolitan dry-cured meat made from pork shoulder) and prosciutto (salt cured ham), all cut painfully thin, each with a distinctive flavor, all magnificent. These meats are not intended as cold cuts in a sandwich, even with bread as wonderful as Sportello’s house-baked Scali. These meats are meant to be savored slowly and appreciated in much the same manner as you would a fine wine–with a deliberate contemplation, with your eyes closed.
The antipasti plate also includes whisper-thin shards of Pecorino Romano, a hard, salty Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk. Though often used as a grating cheese, in small, thin sheets, its unique flavor comes across more fully. The olives are also salty and a bit bitter, maybe even astringent, but those are the qualities meant to be appreciated about olives.
Other surprises abound in the antipasti plate, surprises like pickled, julienned carrots; roasted onions and three types of beans: fresh wax beans, cranberry beans and garbanzo beans. Cranberry beans are not commonly used in New Mexico for other than decorative purposes.
The most popular entree at Sportello and one of only two entrees still on the menu from opening day is the gnocchi with porcini, peas and cream. Gnocchi is one of those “take it or leave it” dishes, rarely done exceptionally well, more often than not a dish that isn’t usually memorable, but it was the dish most commonly mentioned in the blogosphere by passionate patrons of Sportello and we found out why.
The porcini-infused cream is rich and sumptuous, the type of cream sauce for which a good sopping bread is requisite. The gnocchitini (baby gnocchi) dumplings are exquisite, little projectiles of potato perfection. The green peas have a garden fresh, just picked flavor. It’s no wonder so many have resounded the praises of this wonderful entree. I echo their litany of praise.
The other entree available at Sportello since its inception is the Pappardelle with Bolognese Sauce and Fried Basil. Basil is both a singular and plural word and singular would be the appropriate term for this entree, because all you get is one solitary sprig of fried basil. That’s too bad because fried basil, though an acquired taste, is quite good–at least to those who like it.
The Bolognese sauce is plentiful, but not overwhelming; rich with perhaps a cream infusion; light and absolutely delicious; with a slightly spicy and tangy edge; maybe the best of its ilk we’ve ever had. What makes this a transformative (from great to outstanding) dish, however, is the pasta, ribbons of house-made pasta prepared perfectly. This entree is topped with a generous stack of Parmesan Reggiano, a hard, granular cheese made from raw cow’s milk. Parmesan Reggiano is a transcendent cheese far removed from the pedestrian parmesan plucked from a sealed bag and thrown atop most pizza.
As for the pasta, Pappardelle is one of those delicious dichotomies. It’s considered a wide form of fettucini or a narrow form of lasagna, but it’s really a wide, flat pasta noodle that is neither fetuccini or lasagna. Chef Lynch made her reputation with pasta and based on the utter magnificence of the Pappardelle, it’s easy to see how. This is a pasta which would be good even without sauce.
There are several other items on the menu, but we had to try those deemed so good they haven’t been rotated off the menu. The aforementioned dishes are a testament to Chef Lynch’s genius with pasta, but also reflect the simple elegance of dishes which can be served at what is essentially a counter.
The dessert menu is limited in terms of the number of items offered, but not in terms of taste. Under a glass display case is an array of cupcakes beckoning diners to indulge in their sweet succulence. You might also contemplate purchasing a small jar of house-made jam from a shelf near the take-out counter. Sportello’s carries a line of jams, pastas, nuts, oils and other treats that are hard to resist.
We couldn’t resist the warm bread pudding topped with a house-made plum jam ands sitting in a pool of honey caramel. The combination of tart plum jam and rich, cloying honey caramel brings utter joy–and the bread is crustless, but that doesn’t mean spongy. In fact, the bread was more like a thick French toast in texture with plenty of give to succumb to our forks. This is a dessert that might leave you wanting to lick the plate.
We might never have discovered Sportello had it not been for the Saveur article touting it as one of twelve restaurants in America that matter. It’s easy to see why that distinction is fitting. Sportello is an anchor in a burgeoning waterfront neighborhood in historic Fort Point, a area in which old warehouses are being converted into trendy hubs of commerce. It is the reincarnation of a way of dining that many thought to have been bygone. It is simplicity meeting refinement. It is outstanding Italian food in a neighborhood heretofore not known for it.
348 Congress Street
LATEST VISIT: 19 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Papardelle with Sauce Bolognese and Fried Basil, Potato Gnocchi, Antipasti, Warm Bread pudding