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July 21, 2009


Whipped Ricotta with Fig Preserves Dominic Armato

Consider it official. We've landed in Boston, our stuff is here, our cars are here, our kids are here, we've had our first night out on the town and we're a couple of drivers' licenses away from full-on state recognition. And in a shocking development, in our first two weeks in our new town, we've managed as many kidless nights on the town as we did our entire first year in Baltimore. I don't think I'm exaggerating. With an unexpected last-minute opportunity to jump into Boston's dining scene last weekend, I found myself scurrying. I hadn't yet done any research or sought any suggestions. I knew enough to know that O Ya will be our first special night out excursion, but where to go late on a Saturday when you aren't looking for a big production but still want to do something a little exciting? Enter Sportello. The first thing that popped into my head was a Saveur article from a couple of months prior, "12 Restaurants That Matter", that described Barbara Lynch's newish trendy pasta joint in rather glowing terms. Casual, open late, comfort (for us) food... perfect.

Sunchoke SoupDominic Armato

Despite expecting casual, I was a little taken aback by just how casual it was. Half of the tiny restaurant's seats are along its snaking counter, with most of the rest along one long, communal table in the window. The interior actually struck me as sort of Japanese, in that it's very small, very cramped, very clean, and very design-conscious. It's gleaming white above and chocolate brown below with ultramodern furniture, a cramped Jetsons diner where the kitchen, dining room and small retail bakery all share space. The late hour (and our late arrival -- if you accidentally get on the Mass Pike downtown, you're not getting off until you hit Cambridge, apparently) meant that we didn't get much of a look at the bakery, even though the only way for me to reach my seat was to be led behind the counter. The menu's fairly small and largely pasta-centric, with a smattering of starters and a few entrees that are mysteriously mislabeled "primi" on the website. No matter. So long as the food's delicious, they can call the dishes whatever they want. We had a little wine, smeared our rosemary-raisin bread with some whipped ricotta and fig preserves, and settled in for dinner.

Pork TonnatoDominic Armato

My ladylove's starter was a sunchoke soup with brown butter and truffle. Upon first taste, the most we could say was that it was hot. Really hot. Like, McDonald's coffee lawsuit hot. Some might consider this a positive -- it certainly beats cold -- but different flavors come out at different temperatures, and at this temperature it just came across as watery. After letting it sit for a good 10-15 minutes, it was not only more approachable but more tasty as well. Still, I found it a little lacking. I wasn't looking for a bowl of sunchoke-flavored cream, but either a little more richness or a little more intensity would have been appreciated. I was completely unable to resist the Pork Tonnato. Vitello Tonnato is one of my favorite dishes, where a mayonnaisey tuna sauce tops chilled slices of cooked veal. Here, the sauce was smeared alongside a few tangles of chilled pork and topped with tiny croutons, shaved fennel and some manner of microgreen. The pork was lovely, tender, moist and slightly pink. The accompaniments lacked the pungency of the traditional version, which worked for me, but the tuna sauce had taken a back seat, which didn't. Underutilized tuna aside, however, fine dish -- light and refreshing.

Corn Risotto with ChanterellesDominic Armato

After my ladylove selected the pasta dish that had most piqued my interest, I deferred to Plan B, a seasonal special not listed on the online menu. My corn risotto with chanterelles, pancetta and parmesan, however, was a lot more exciting to the eye than it was to the tongue. It's a great combination of flavors and most of the components were executed with the utmost precision (I'd like to know how they achieved those paper-thin, perfectly crisp ribbons of pancetta -- it's something I've been trying to do myself), but I had two major points of contention here. First, the texture struck me as all wrong. I don't expect risotto to be a thick, cheesy mess, but this felt more like wet rice. More importantly, like the soup, it was extremely lightweight on flavor -- even more so. I try very hard to avoid hyperbole, but I really had to stop for a moment and wonder if they'd prepared the risotto with water. I can only conclude that they used an incredibly light vegetable stock. Had it been something like a really intense corn stock this dish might have been a winner. But as it was served, it was a huge disappointment -- a bowl of rice with some flavorful garnish on top, saved from complete disaster by the fantastic texture imparted by the pop of fresh kernels of corn and the crisp pancetta.

Mustard Leaf AgnolottiDominic Armato

And with that, I would have permanently crossed Sportello off the list if not for my ladylove's pasta. The mustard leaf agnolotti with lamb, favas and rapini was absolutely dynamite. A lovely stuffed pasta was piled in a bowl along with braised greens, shaved parmesan, bright green favas, huge chunks of tender lamb and large slivers of garlic, but what made the dish was the inch of lamb jus in the bottom. Here was the intensity of flavor that we were missing earlier. The dish was still exceptionally light, but the flavor was big, and that made all the difference. Ironically, you could ditch the pasta altogether, grab a huge chunk of crusty bread and the dish would be almost as successful. What this says about Lynch's pasta chops, I'm not sure, but who cares? I'll come back for this dish alone, if for no other reason than so I can have a bowl to myself.

Reading around the 'net, Sportello has some seriously mixed reviews, and even based on one meal, it's not hard to see why. If I'd only had the soup and risotto, I'd have felt the place was a total waste of time and money. If I'd stopped in for lunch and just had the agnolotti with lamb, I'd be vowing to come back and try every single dish on the menu. At this price point ($20+ for pastas), you should expect some level of consistency and on that basis it's hard not to criticize. But any kitchen that can turn out that agnolotti deserves some attention, even if you have to wade through the menu to find the items that hit. I say start there, branch out... and then let me know what else hits so I can order that on MY next visit.

348 Congress Street
Boston, MA 02210
Mon - Sat11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:30 PM - 10:00 PM


Ah yes, young Jedi... soon you will learn when not to use the MassPike (that is: Never, unless you're leaving town. Though some transit advocates want to change that, as I heard on Radio Boston last Friday).

Glad to hear your first dining excursion in Boston wasn't a total flap :)

I cannot stress enough - cannolis from Mike's Pastry. Try 'em.

Oh my God yes to Mike's Pastries. I only make it up to Mass. once a year or so to visit family, but I always make a point to go an hour out of my way when going to grandma's house to pick up MP's cannolis.

I haven't been to Sportello yet - held back by those same negative reviews - but if you get a chance, go to Drink downstairs. It's a little gimmicky - no drink menus, you just talk to the bartenders about what you like, and they make something - but they focus heavily on classic cocktails, use only the best ingredients, and the bartenders are generally very good raconteurs. If you want to talk about cocktails and drink well, lots of fun. I am excited to try out that agnolotti and lamb - sounds lovely.

and, Welcome to Boston! if you're interested, I have many recommendations on food in and around Boston. For high-quality, laid-back Italian, I recommend first Neptune Oyster in the North End. The price point is a little lower than Sportello, it's likewise mostly a bar with a few tables around the side, with a great seasonal menu, focusing on seafood. And hte best oysters in the city.

I also like Giacomo's - this is a bit more controversial, I think (Neptune Oyster is the best Italian in the city by universal acclamation) - but I've never had bad pasta there, and the price point is right ($12-18). You don't go there expecting anything you haven't had before, but it's good comfort good. Their lobster-based "Giacomo's" red sauce is tasty. Go to the South End location, for some reason the North End location has these insane three hour lines.

I think the cannolis from Modern are better than Mike's - it depends on your preference, Mike's are definitely sweeter. Mike's always makes me feel like a tourist, too, which I don't prefer.

You also need to go to Toro. Jamie Bissonette is doing the most beautiful things with offal and Spanish flavors, it's the best restaurant in Boston that normal people can afford. (O Ya is the best restaurant in Boston, and Tiffani from Top Chef 1 cooks there, which is pretty cool. I went once, for my birthday, and Tiffani cooked the foie that I ate. Cool. Then we got the bill.) Toro currently has a dandelion green salad with fried pork belly and a 60-minute egg that is mindblowing. The charcuterie plate is tremendous. And a gorgeous tripe.

For cheaper food, and I'll stop clogging up comments, I recommend hot dogs at Famous Speed's wagon just off 93 by South Bay Plaza, vietnamese soups at Xinh Xinh in Chinatown, fried ribs (called "spare ribs with garlic sauce") and pork belly with string beans at Best Little Restaurant in Chinatown, Ken's Ramen at the Super 88 food court in Allston, beef cheek and carnitas tacos at Taqueria El Amigo in Waltham, ice cream at Christina's in Inman Square, pastries (canneles!) at Canto 6 in Jamaica Plain, yuppie sandwiches at Flour in the South End.

One last thing - are you so far out that you can't take the T into the city? The T (red, orange, and blue lines esp., avoid green line) is very good, and not driving in Boston is always the way to go.

MCH... heck no, you're not clogging the comments. Keep 'em coming! I'm looking for all of the info I can get.

I've already been to Neptune Oyster and had a nice plate of oysters and a mean lobster roll. I kind of hated to default to the lobster roll, but it looked so damn good (and it was).

O Ya and Ken's are already on my short list. And good spots for pho and tacos are very pressing necessities for me when moving.

Actually, it's pretty easy for me to take the T into the city. There's a stop about a mile away. The issue is little ones. They'll usually be in tow, and the thought of navigating public transportation with an infant and a two-year-old is a little intimidating. We'll see how it goes.

Ohhh, your comment about the Mass Pike made me chuckle - I lived in Boston for two years, right on Memorial Drive, which is the road that runs along the Cambridge side of the Charles. You have to change lanes constantly just to stay straight on it, and if you are in the wrong lane, you invariably end up on a bridge going across to Boston proper. It happened to me at least once every time I drove in my first 2 weeks there, no matter how hard I tried, suddenly I'd be on a bridge! And turning around and going back was no easy matter... can't say I miss that aspect of Boston too much. :p

Anyway, I think I might have mentioned it here before, but my absolute favorite restaurant in the area is Salts, in Cambridge. It's small and low-key and welcoming, but also so elegant. And not crazy expensive - definitely not an everyday place, but I think appetizers are in the $15 range and entrees ~$30. And every meal I had there was stellar!

MCH - I was wondering when someone would bring up Modern.

See, I wanted to like Modern Pastry more than Mike's. I really did. Smaller, less crowded, chic design, very groovy. But when it came down to it, Mike's just tastes better.

So, it's all subjective.

Dom, you should check them both out. They're both on Hanover street, not too far from each other. Have a coffee and cannoli at Mike's, and then a coffee and cannoli at Modern. I've done it. It's a blast.

Welcome to Boston!

I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have found the projectrungay of Top Chef. After you have been here for awhile, you will get over the "name" restaurants and find the gems. To me, the gems are the small family run ethnic restaurants that cook traditional fare from where they are from.

And get those kids on the T. They will be heading to the city on it on their own before you know it.

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