Lydia Shire is a feeder. She likes giving people something big and over-the-top, tempting them to have a little more than they’d usually let themselves. She’s also a Boston figure, both uniquely stylish and frowzy, who long ago wove herself into the fabric of city life. I imagine a statue of her with a hand balancing an overflowing tray of dishes she wants you to try.
Shire hasn’t brought just a name to Scampo, at the Liberty Hotel, Richard Friedman’s new luxury outpost beside Mass. General at the base of Beacon Hill. She has brought her zest for creating loud bar scenes with plenty of sports and Boston power talk, her knack for catering to the city’s most influential types. How does she always attract the hardest-swinging bar types alongside corporate movers and shakers alongside foodies? They must have been waiting for her. I haven’t seen this blend since the days of the much-mourned Biba, or the first weeks of Excelsior.
And, of course, Shire has brought her zest for food of all kinds, and her unquenchable love of butter, garlic, and shallots—practically every dish at Scampo has a goodly amount of one or all of them. But she has left her more grandiose schemes behind, and also discarded a few of the indulgences: the obscure ingredients and, blessedly, the heavy hand with the salt. In the days of Biba, Pignoli, and Excelsior, her investors gave free rein to her ambitious designs, which easily crossed into the overblown, and to her big personality and willingness to try anything. (Things are more restrained, of course, at her lasting gift to Boston, the lovingly restored Locke-Ober.)
While it is big, Scampo isn’t overblown or loopily original. Like all of the restaurants at the former Charles Street Jail, it has a clever name: Though “scampo” is the Italian word for langoustine, in a less common usage it also means “escape.” Like the other Liberty Hotel restaurant, Clink, it has bars on the completely redone windows and lots of exposed brick. But aside from the slightly confining, thick walls and small windows, the ground-floor room is surprisingly friendly and accessible. In the center of the room is the same flame that beckoned diners at the top of the Biba stairs: a pizza oven. And a tandoori oven, too—the Biba bread basket is back!
The bigger news, though, is that Shire herself is back, with a relaxed menu that combines some of the flair of Biba with the classicism of Pignoli. The menu at Scampo is Italian, with a big dose of Lydia. The first night I went, she was in her element: greeting Todd English and his daughter in the expansive driveway with the grand views of the Longfellow Bridge and ushering them into the bar, and then busying herself in the kitchen to hand-serve Mayor Tom Menino the “mayor’s broccoli rabe e scampo” pizza ($17), named for one she threw together the night of one of his inaugurals. “I know the mayor likes his ‘robbie,'” she said as she brought the plate, generously sprinkled with bits of chopped broccoli rabe and pickled jalapeño. The original didn’t have the scattering of sweet little rock shrimp (the “scampo” of the name), whose presence I found to be both incongruous and underwhelming. As with all eight dinner plate–size pizzas on the menu (most from $14 to $18), you have to like shallot oil and garlic and somewhat oily, thin pizza dough.
The dough worked to better effect in the ciccio ($9), folded over three kinds of salty, gooey Italian cheese and, of course, more garlic and shallots. It’s like a lush grilled cheese sandwich, and makes for fantastic bar food. For that matter, so do any of the breads, which are all rich (oily, garlicky, salty) and all pretty great. Naan ($4) and focaccia with rosemary, sea salt, and warm robiola ($8) are musts for the Biba-deprived.
Another bread oven showstopper is listed as a starter: hot puffed pita with mini souvlaki of lamb ($18). The pairing seems quintessential Shire: Mediterranean-flavored marinated lamb with a “buttered hollandaise,” as her longtime colleague Mario Capone, the executive chef, described it (only a Shire kitchen would call something a buttered hollandaise); a microgreens salad with big sugared whole walnuts; the pita slathered with gremolata, the Italian garlic and green herb sauce. It’s too much—or would be, if served in anything more than this small, provocative sampling.
You can skip the “house-made mozzarella” category, which is latching on to an L.A. trend (Mario Batali’s Osteria Mozza) but doesn’t even feature homemade mozzarella in all the items—not such a bad thing, as Italian can be better than homemade, and the kitchen buys decent Italian mozzarella to pick up the slack.
Aside from the aforementioned pita with souvlaki, the appetizers weren’t memorable, either. So go straight to the spaghetti, at Scampo a category of its own, with seven listings ($12–$22). The kitchen uses several thicknesses of pasta, Capone explained, and the one they chose for the Bolognese ($16) seemed just right, with a classic, perfectly tossed-off sauce that gets a nice smoky addition of bacon and pancetta just before serving. Carbonara with fresh peas ($14) was satisfying, too, with hole-in-the-middle bucatini rather than spaghetti, plus more nice bacon flavor and a Shire-size dollop of butter.
Main-course “plates” were the most variable, but did include a rock-solid kurobuta pork chop and green onion tart ($29)—you’d be hard-pressed to find a better big piece of grilled, juicy meat. And taking from her wretched-excess Excelsior classic, there’s butter-poached lobster scented with vanilla, here served with a very creamy corn pot de crème and greens ($48). Cherry-charred duck ($30) had too much fat left under the skin, but the meat was dry anyway; spatchcocked (semiboned and butterflied) quail with oven-browned semolina gnocchi in a yellow raisin sabayon ($28) was drowned in a cream sauce that neither the delicately flavored meat nor the nicely soft semolina managed to rise above. The fish offerings were fine, if unremarkable. Case in point: the farmed salmon ($29), served tuna-rare to bring out the oil, with roasted hazelnut oil and tangy citrus spinach whose nuttiness and tang were so muted as to be barely detectable.
Desserts, though, are a Shire favorite, and I’ve always been impressed that she doesn’t turn her back on the sweet, as so many proud chefs do. There’s a cookie plate ($10) with, if you’re lucky, a lacy brown-sugar cookie that has perfect snap and sweetness, as well as two great icy choices: watermelon sorbet with a lime-tequila cookie ($10) and cherry gelato studded with hard little cocoa nibs that explode with flavor. Maybe, just maybe, we can get her to make that Baileys butterscotch sauce she says is a part-time obsession. It’s great to have the Lydia obsessions back, and available nightly.