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Dining Out

A fine twist on Italian fare

The antipasti platter offers house-made prosciutto and salami, olives, tiny artichoke hearts, and Parmigiano. The antipasti platter offers house-made prosciutto and salami, olives, tiny artichoke hearts, and Parmigiano. (Photos by Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / February 18, 2009
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Chef-owner Barbara Lynch's Sportello may be the perfect lunch spot. It's a modular space of white U-shaped counters and stools, round white lights hanging from the ceiling. ("Sportello" is Italian for "counter.") The menu offers a mix of comforting yet elegant soups, salads, pasta, and more. The worker bees of Fort Point Channel now have a new place for a nice sit-down meal with a glass of wine; those in a rush can pick up sandwiches, bread, or sweets at the takeout counter. Pricey jams from France, house-made chocolate bars, and artisanal pasta are also for sale.

For dinner, it may not be to everyone's taste, because it's still a modular space of counters and stools - cool but not particularly comfortable. The posture-challenging seats are affixed to the floor so you can't pull them closer (and, sadly, they don't spin). The feeling is fun and casual, but if you're someone who likes to slouch, you're out of luck. On the other hand, sitting here is good for the abs, in the same way an exercise ball is.

That can't hurt, because there are plenty of temptations on the menu, which is short and sweet and changes frequently. Chief among them is the strozzapreti ("priest stranglers"), little twists of pasta served with bits of braised rabbit, green olives, and a sauce made with rabbit jus and rosemary. This is the best dish I've had at Sportello, good enough to forgive the place some of its faults. If Sportello were always at its best, it would be wonderful; unfortunately, some nights it's not.

Gnocchi with porcini, peas, and cream is a dish of potato bullets, giant and leaden enough to injure someone if used as a projectile. There is enough good gnocchi in this city - including the justifiably famous prune-stuffed version at Lynch's own No. 9 Park - that I had nearly forgotten why I sometimes don't enjoy the dish. These reminded me. The porcini-infused cream they're served in is sumptuous, with excellent flavor, but over the top in its richness. Yet I've spoken with people who thought the dish stellar, so perhaps sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Even the strozzapreti are sometimes better than others, more harmonious in flavors and cooked just to that right point. And a dish of gnocchitini, baby dumplings graced in a light seafood-and-tomato sauce with mussels, is excellent.

Another wonderful dish is the ricotta gnudi, a dish that took New York by storm a few years back but has yet to really arrive here. These are little pillows of house-made ricotta mixed with egg and a bit of flour, then poached - like ravioli without the wrappers, hence the name ("gnudi" = nude). In plenty of brown butter with walnuts, they burst in your mouth. (The same ricotta appears at the beginning of the meal in a little dish with sea salt and a drizzle of jam, served with scali bread.) Pappardelle with Bolognese and fried basil is a classic, tried and true.

An antipasti platter is a dainty version that gives you plenty to enjoy without stuffing you full. It's a little picnic of house-made prosciutto and salami, olives, tiny artichoke hearts, and Parmigiano. Filling a similar niche is a creamy berg of buffalo mozzarella with long, thin toasts coated in olive paste.

A similar toast comes with a bowl of tomato soup, nearly creamy with emulsified olive oil and lightly spicy. The cheese toast is called "caraway grilled cheese" on the menu, and though the crostino is tasty, it lacks the fireside coziness of actual grilled cheese. Pasta fagiole with shrimp polpettini is a wonderful idea, but it's disappointing. The bean soup needs seasoning stat, the beans are crunchy, and shrimp meatballs and pasta bits are few and far between.

The lunch menu offers these dishes, plus some polenta options and flatbreads. Dinner brings in entrees. This is a strange Italian menu - there are appetizers, entree-size pasta dishes, and then what are called "primi," which are meat and fish courses. There are no secondi, though that's what the primi function as. The option isn't on the menu, but you can request a half-portion of pasta as a first course.

Confit pork belly is a hit, a sinful piece of meat with crunchy skin, served with apples and cabbage. Alas, it's about to come off the menu. Short rib comes on a Flintstone bone with butterbeans and sunchokes; the accompaniments are the most interesting part of the dish. The meat is good; it just somehow fails to hit the short rib sweet spot, the perfect alchemy of browned exterior and slowly, slowly braised tenderness.

Sirloin fiorentina is a huge steak, seared rather than traditionally grilled. It's served with rapini, rectangular fries stacked on top like Lincoln Logs, and a little dish of thick, heavily spiced steak sauce. What groovy ranch is the meat from? I couldn't tell you. The word "local" appears here and there, but Sportello's menu is fairly free of information about each food product's origin. It's funny to realize that this now feels like an exception, with so many chefs - justifiably proud of carefully cultivated relationships with producers - filling you in on heirloom varietals and the name of the guy who foraged your mushrooms. Remember when you didn't know unless you asked?

Desserts range from good to great. A chocolate budino with olive oil and salt sounds heavenly, but it needs to be a bit sweeter. Chocolate ginger cake is light in texture and flavor, no chocolate bomb, balanced just right. Panna cotta is perfect, featuring the right amount of gelatin to create a silky custard, with no Jell-O wobble and just enough shape. Made from yogurt, it has a slight tang; it's served with Meyer lemon confit and appealing little biscotti.

Like the menu, the wine list is succinct, put together by the wise Cat Silirie, who heads the programs for all of Lynch's restaurants. By the glass, you'll find three reds and three whites, all unusual Italian grapes, all great with the food. The list of bottles echoes and expands on those themes.

Service is casual and friendly, fitting to the space; occasionally a server lingers a little too long and inserts himself into your conversation a little too much. The kitchen is open, and you can watch executive chef Colin Lynch (no relation to Barbara) take disturbingly large knobs of butter and throw them in the frying pan to prepare your food. Maybe it's better not to look. There's also a basement commissary you can glance into through the windows as you walk by.

Large parties can be tricky in this space; you have to wait for a corner or a spot at the one table, or else you'll all be sitting in a long row. This would be a great restaurant to commandeer for a private party - you'd be able to interact with all of your friends at once. The close quarters are mostly convivial, but Lynch's bar Drink is downstairs, and occasionally loud, soused patrons stumble up to pad their stomachs.

Drink and Sportello are nicely symbiotic; one can drift between the two spaces, alternating bespoke cocktails and casual Italian fare. (A third, fine-dining restaurant slated for late summer will round out Lynch's Fort Point offerings.) The spaces have similar layouts, the shape of Sportello's counters mirrored by Drink's bars, the former stark and bright and modern, the latter warmer with brick and wood. When Sportello's food is always as carefully crafted as Drink's drinks, this will be a perfect one-two punch.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

SPORTELLO

348 Congress St., Boston. 617-737-1234. www.sportelloboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Lunch: Appetizers $7-$12. Entrees $14-$17. Dessert $8. Dinner: Appetizers $8-$14. Entrees $18-$26. Dessert $8.

Hours Bakery and retail: Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Lunch: Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon-Sat 5:30-10 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy unless seated beside drunken escapees from the bar downstairs.

May we suggest

Buffalo mozzarella, strozzapreti, pappardelle, panna cotta.

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