Dining Out: Sportello

By Corby Kummer | Boston Magazine |

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED BARBARA LYNCH AT GALLERIA ITALIANA IN the mid-’90s, and ever since she left I’ve been hoping she’d return to those pasta days. That restaurant (in the Theater District space Teatro has happily and noisily occupied since 2003) was a fusion of sheer talent that left a long legacy. Founders Rita D’Angelo and Marisa Iocco went on to cook at La Bettola, Mare, and Bricco, turning each into a destination. D’Angelo is now at Rocca; Iocco has landed at Spiga in Needham. And Lynch…well, you know where she ended up. Everywhere.

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Lynch’s first professional experience as a cook, she told me recently, was in high school at a Brigham’s, pinch-hitting when there were burgers to be flipped. Years later, inspired by the experience, she decided that the lunch-counter concept was "the right formula" for her next venture. The surprise is how, in Sportello, she has combined Galleria’s simple pastas and classic Italian fare with a Brigham’s-style design of backless stools at a high white counter. (This being Lynch, the décor is miles sleeker than any Brigham’s could ever be—and the food miles better.) Logical though this setup is for the lunch and takeout crowds, Lynch runs a serious kitchen, and she wants to attract a dinner crowd, too. And it’s here that the fusion becomes fairly incongruous.

Then there’s the location. Sportello is Lynch’s second beachhead in her planned colonization of Fort Point Channel (the first was Drink, a lively bar downstairs that has quickly become a speakeasy-style cocktail haven), a rollout designed to duplicate her success in the South End with the Butcher Shop, B&G Oysters, et al. The problem is that between the time she signed her lease in the tony FP3 condo building and the time she could open, the neighborhood lost momentum, failing to attract the sort of rich empty-nester who had moved into the South End’s Atelier 505. Despite Lynch’s sweetheart deal and the rosy scenarios of developers, the big corner space intended for her fine-dining restaurant is still in development. Drink is crowded even on weeknights; Sportello, not so much.

The food should certainly change that. It’s worth going—and going back—for, and represents the bold, stylish classicism that has made Lynch a local and national treasure.

Lynch’s love of the purity of Italian cooking and absolutely first-rate ingredients shines. At times literally, as in the glistening surface of tortellini in brodo ($12), made with the type of sumptuous broth, rich with chicken fat, that any conscientious Italian grandmother would proudly serve on Sunday after Mass. The richly flavored chicken liver filling is something Nonna would be proud of, too, along with the quality of the pasta, though she’d probably cook it long enough not to be crunchy at the twists. A Tuscan bean soup with garlic sausage ($10) delivers flavor with a clarity akin to zooming straight in on a picture: Every element is distinct and exactly right, and makes you want to cook (and shop) just like Lynch.

But in most of the menu, Lynch also follows other mentors and muses, and she heeds the unctuous call of butter—lots of it—to finish her sauces. Here I need to bring in higher authorities, as I make little secret of my aversion to butter-rich dishes. To wit: A discerning friend who lives for butterfat, but also knows and loves Italian food, said to me soon after Sportello opened, "I wish she wouldn’t think she needed to put butter in the pasta, especially when she knows how to cook the way Italians do. It’s like she doesn’t trust herself enough to leave it out." What’s more, friends who live a 10-minute walk away (in Southie), and have happily worked in restaurants and bakeries where butter rules, said they would go a couple of times a week if there weren’t so much butter in the food. I would add, With such clear and strong flavors, why even bother with it?

You can witness Lynch’s celebrated hand with potato gnocchi in her
variation with porcini, peas, and cream ($20), a wonderfully springlike dish. But I prefer her tomato gnocchitini with mussels, saffron, and mascarpone ($20): The dumplings are made small, to yield cute and chewy twins to the mussels, and the subtly spiced sauce is, like the whole dish, inhalable. Escargot ravioli ($21) are a more refined way to have the flavors of classic escargot bourguignon, with plenty of fresh chopped garlic, cooked-through pasta (though maybe too-chewy snails), and, yes, that melted butter. Here it makes sense, but there sure is a lot of it.

Mains are few, and less noteworthy (as are most desserts, like the stodgy, gooey caramel pudding cake; a yogurt panna cotta, at least, was delicate and relatively light). Both the braised veal breast and its accompanying cardoons ($22) came out dry and a bit stringy, and the cardoons surprisingly sour. But the cod ($24) was fine, and the ravishing radish salad with it—bathed in salsa verde and bound with hard-boiled egg and brioche—demonstrated the kind of perfect execution any chef can use to say, "Beat this."

That’s what Lynch is capable of, and why we love her. I already love much of what’s served up at the Sportello counter—and know just what the kitchen could use less of to make me love it even more.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2009/05/dining-out-sportello/