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Lynch tests new, comfortable waters
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  February 27, 2009
4.0 4.0 Stars

LOCAL COD, served with a cunning sauce of white-bean paste, was one of several impressive dishes on the menu at Barbara Lynch’s new Sportello.

Sportello | 348 Congress Street, South Boston | 617.737.1234 | Open Mon–Sat, 11:30 am–2:30 pm and 5:30–10 pm | AE, MC, VI | Beer and wine | Sidewalk-level access via elevator | No valet parking
Famed chef Barbara Lynch has a two-part plan for taking over the Fort Point Channel area. First, she opened both Drink, a below-street-level bar where you have to discuss your cocktail in order to get served, and Sportello, the world's classiest luncheonette, which is located upstairs. Next, she'll finish work on a fashionable fine-dining restaurant, to be located next door. Even before completing that latest project, though, Lynch decided to keep Sportello open at night, with a slightly more upscale menu. (It was already a pretty upscale lunch.) I don't know why she veered in this direction — maybe she's nervous about the market. But the lesson I take away is that Lynch does quality work in any format.

Sportello looks funny at night — if it weren't quite so mod and black-and-white, you could look in the big windows and paint something like Hopper's Nighthawks at the Diner. Except that it would be impossible for the models to eat this food and keep those glum, lonely looks.

We begin with house-made scali bread with a dense crumb and no sesame seeds. With it is a little dish of whipped ricotta and fig jam that's to die for. Don't die yet, though, because there is a whole killer menu to come — including a fantastic appetizer of roasted turnips ($10). (Double-digit turnips!) It has some melted tallegio cheese, like a raclette or fondue, and this ripe cheese with the just-caramelized pieces of turnip is fabulous. As is the salad on top consisting of arugula and paper-thin slices of white radish.

That salad is also the basis of the fennel and celery option ($9), which adds shaved pieces of the eponymous vegetables, micro greens, and some amazing Parmagiano. It may be overdressed, but with lemon and extra-virgin olive oil, too much is just about right. We also had an amazing broccoli soup ($9) — green purûe with lots of fresh vegetable flavor, garnished with some little croutons and a poached egg.

Pasta made Lynch famous, and apparently she can transmit her magical powers. Papardelle with Bolognese sauce ($22) are made with glorious ribbons of house-made pasta, with some chew but a surprising lightness. The meat sauce is rich — cut with a little cream, I suspect — and the sprig of fried basil on top looks as good as it tastes. Potato gnocchi ($20) are quite light and melt in your mouth — that is, if your mouth has not already melted from the savor of fresh porcini, peas, and another cream sauce. (Porcini must cost a fortune in February.)

For our primi course, we were impressed with "local cod" ($24), which was certainly a lovely small square of fish, cunningly enriched with an underlying sauce of white-bean paste (not "salsa verde," as the printed menu had it), and some more of that radish salad. Bone-in sirloin fiorentina ($30) crosses the Italian steak Florentine with the bistro classic steak frites. You get the most terrific French fries, and then you get this big rare steak, with lots of flavor and juice (and a little melted butter on top — thanks, chef), and broccoli rabe sautûed on top. Mrs. Nadeau likes to take home a bit of steak to go with her breakfast eggs. Not this time, dear.

The wine list is all Italian regional, all recent vintages, all by the glass, and short: a sparkler, three reds, three whites. The glasses are stemless, but large and nicely recurved, like professional tasting glasses. On the whites, the 2007 Cusmano alcamo from Sicily ($9) was fuller than a pinot grigio, but remarkably crisp and fresh for a hot-climate white. Paulo Scavino's 2007 rosso di tavolo ($10) is a blend of all the vines of Piedmont plus cabernet sauvignon, a light wine despite a little tannin still showing under dark fruit. A 2007 Cesanese del Piglio, from Corte dei Papi, is a central Italian wine, lighter and fruitier, based on ancient red grapes of the region. And a 2007 Greisbauerhof St. Magdalener ($9) is made from a red grape known in this area of Northern Italy near Austria as "vernatsch." It isn't often I can add three new grapes to my life list at one meal, but the menu doesn't make anything of the unusual grape varieties. It just lists a lot of regional Italian wines you've never heard of, which turn out to be light, fruity, and perfect for this food. Decaf coffee ($2.50) and decaf cappuccino ($3.75) are both impeccable.

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