Sportello, Boston

Quite apologetically, I’m coming to the professional food scene a bit behind the eight-ball and so I’m embarrassed to admit I’m just now learning about Barbara Lynch. Yes, the Barbara Lynch behind Boston’s golden gems like Menton, Drink, Sportello and most recently, winner of the 2014 James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur award (becoming only the second female in history to do so).

I first read about Barbara in a New York Times Magazine piece profiling her and her young protege, Kristen Kish. It’s a wonderful read, so you should definitely check it out here. Barbara, one of the world’s most accomplished chef-restaurateurs, began her professional career in Todd English’s restaurant, Olives, in 1989 when few women were working in professional kitchens. Making her own way in a still very much male-dominated culinary world, Lynch has made her own mark. She now owns a Boston-based hospitality group that has 260 employees, overseeing a catering company as well as seven restaurants. To put it bluntly, Barbara Lynch is a formidable force in the industry and it was my singular goal, while in Boston, to visit at least one of her locations.

I was in Boston, my first visit ever, for an incredibly motivating design conference. I had classes all day, but my evenings were free for fine-dining adventures and I hoped to make the most of the opportunity. With seven of Barbara’s venues at my disposal, I hoped I’d make more than one … how ill-prepared I was for the massive amount of knowledge I’d be cramming into my brain every day, how crazy the traffic is during rush-hour, and how mind boggling obtaining a parking place would be. As I pulled up to the valet parking station on the corner of Commerce and Summer in downton Boston, I was slightly bummed. With only one night left in Boston, I was just now making an appearance at Sportello, Barbara’s modern interpretation of the classic diner, and I felt heartily ashamed I had run out of time. Menton, her equally modern fine-dining establishment, had ultimately been my goal, but time and resources had been whittled away from me so Sportello would have to satisfy my Lynch enthusiasm.

“Welcome to Menton!” the valet attendant beamed at me as I stepped out of my rental car. “Oh, wait, Menton?” I asked, perplexed – I’d been having trouble with my gps system all week, or had I inadvertently typed in Menton’s address?

“I’m sorry,” I explained, “I meant to find Sportello.”

“Oh sure,” the valet replied, turning and pointing down the street, “Sportello’s just next door.” And I looked up to see a sign featuring THREE of Barbara Lynch’s restaurants: Sportello, Menton, and Drink – a bar lovingly dedicated to the craft of fine cocktail making.

Son of a nut-cracker!

I’m a seasoned food writer. I investigate. I research things – I’m usually in the know. How could I not have picked up on the fact three of her establishments were in the same building? Well, I’m still wondering about that, but suddenly, I went from slightly bummed to overly-optimistic. I only had one night, but perhaps I could sneak a peak at all three.

I’m usually on food adventures alone, which I’ve explained before is actually quite handy. It makes reservations rarely necessary and I’m used to taking my chances on showing up to a joint unannounced because I’m only taking up one chair and I’ll usually sit at the bar. That’s pretty much why I selected Sportello for my singular Barbara Lynch experience – Sportello is Italian for “counter service”, perfect for a party of one to cozy up, yet again, to a gloriously open kitchen which I almost always seek out when hunting down quality eating experiences. Because that’s what I want these adventures to be; an experience. Good food is, in and of itself, a reward, but watching someone make that good food right in front of me involves me in the process. That satisfaction I get when I prepare and cook good food for the people I care about is what I feel when my dinner becomes more of a shared experience with the people who are making it for me.

Below is an expression of the experience – and my apologies to Sportello for the some-what lacking quality of the food pics. Low-light environments are challenging without my  50mm f/1.8 lens on the big camera, but I realize that can often intrude on diners, so I try to stick with my Samsung Galaxy point and shoot so as to be unobtrusive.

Haley, my server, handed me a menu and took my drink order, and while I already knew what I wanted (investigate! research!), I glanced over the menu anyway, just in case. While I perused, I was served fresh bread (baked in-house) with ricotta, olive oil and marinated rhubarb. I knew I’d be choosing the lardo crostini with honeyed walnuts, so I tried to take it easy on the bread and ricotta, but you take one bite of freshly-baked bread smothered in ricotta and let me know how easy it is to put down.

Lardo is a type of salumi made by curing thin strips of fatback with rosemary and other herb and spices. At Sportello, they serve a slice of lardo so thin it is nearly transparent, the heat from the crostini causing it to melt down the sides of the bread. They top the lardo with honeyed walnuts and a drizzle of olive oil. A perfectly salty+sweet treat, the earthiness of the walnuts cutting through he richness of the fatback. I snapped a few pics and jotted down some notes, munching contentedly on my appetizer that disappeared sooner than I would have liked.

When Haley reappeared with my entrée (polenta with lamb ragu) I was still in the middle of writing about the crostini. Sheepishly, I admitted I was a food writer, and that I’d been looking forward to experiencing a Barbara Lynch restaurant for some time now. One of my favorite things about being a food writer is that when you start talking to people in the food industry about what they do and how much you’re enjoying their hospitality, they immediately light up. It was evident enough the minute I walked into Sportello that team seriously enjoyed working there, but when I began to share with them how nutballs I was about this particular experience, well – they took that ball and ran with it.

As Haley placed my ragu in front of me, she admitted, if not a bit under the radar, that she felt out of all of Barbara’s establishments, Sportello was the one closest to her heart. “Sportello is Barbara,” she went on to explain, “And while all of her restaurants are great, I tend to feel Sportello is the most well-rounded.” My mouth was full of creamy polenta, its mild cheesiness the perfect bed for the tender lamb ragu, but I nodded agreeably. Then she turned and expressed breathlessly, “I’m going to get Bonnie, you’ve got to talk to her.”

Yes, go get Bonnie, I sighed to myself languidly as I put a serious dent in my polenta, but I was suddenly surprised by a sweetness bursting in my mouth: golden currants studded the dish, hidden slyly by whisps of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I would have never thought to do this (which is why I write about food and do not own seven restaurants) but it totally made sense. The sweetness of the currants cut through the richness of the ragu, taking a comforting, savory dish to another dimension and brightening it quite unexpectedly.

I was just getting into the groove of this exceptional dish when suddenly, another bowl materialized by its side.

“You must try the potato gnocchi,” Haley instructed. “It’s our signature dish.”

A single bite proved her right, and while I obviously didn’t have the opportunity to sampleevery dish Sportello has to offer, they should never remove the potato gnocchi from the menu. Ever. I am now and forever will be ruined for any other gnocchi, but I don’t regret that for one moment. Barbara’s gnocchi is both tender and delightfully chewy simultaneously. Bathed in a light and herby cream sauce and studded with fresh spring peas and miniature mushrooms, not one element is out of place in this dish. It is seriously transforming.

I sincerely wanted to finish both entrées, but I could feel the waist-band of my jeans tightening. Only one more hour and I’d be in my pajamas, so willingly I spooned another pillowy gnocchi in my mouth just as Bonnie, Sportello’s Maître d’ appeared in front of me.

“Are you enjoying the gnocchi? They’re life-transforming, aren’t they?” she asked brightly.

I nodded, my mouth once again too full to respond. I didn’t need to – she had a completely enraptured audience.

“You can find the exact recipe she uses in her restaurants in her cookbook,” she declared, then went on to share a brief history of Barbara’s vision for the restaurants in the building and how she grew up eating at diners with her mother in the heart of Boston and I found myself completely wrapped up in all of it, once again regretful that Sportello would be my only stop before heading home for Arizona.

Buttons bursting, I threw a “on-no-you-didn’t” glance at Haley (who I should now refer to as my “dealer” being that I was totally addicted) as she slyly slid a generous slice of coconut cake in front of me, while Bonnie went on to explain how all three restaurants, Sportello, Drink and Menton, shared a universal kitchen downstairs. Before I could turn down the six-layered desert (yeah, six lay-ers!), Haley was pronouncing, “It’s what folks come here for!” as she scurried away. What a pusher, and I loved her for it.

Through a haze of sweet coco-nutty goodness, I thought I heard Bonnie saying if I could hold on just a minute or two, she’d love to take me on a back-door tour of all three restaurants.

Wait, what?

“Yeah, seriously,” Bonnie affirmed, dashing off to great new arrivals at the front entrance, “Give me just a few minutes!”

Keeping my inner food nerd from geeking out at that point was a complete waste of time. That nerd was loud and proud and waving her freaky food flag my friends. I’m sorry you weren’t there to witness my shock and awe as I was lead down ancient narrow staircases and escorted to a brightly lit room featuring all the fresh fruits Drink would make use of in its artisan cocktails, past the narrow entry-way where all the bread was made in-house and then into the temperature-controlled wine cellar which housed row after row of carefully selected artisanal Italian wines that compliment all of Barbara’s dishes.

As we made our way through the belly of the century-old building, Bonnie would pause at each turn and call out, “Corner turkey!”

The first few times I thought she might have a tourette problem, but after the fourth or fifth call out, I finally got brave enough to ask her what the heck “corner turkey” meant. She laughed and informed me that she was simply letting the staff know she was on her way to their area with a guest in-tow and to be on their best behavior. This was really happening – I was “on the inside” and privy to top-secret restaurant lingo!

But just when I thought my Barbara Lynch experience couldn’t possibly get any better, suddenly, we were standing in the kitchen of Menton. THE KITCHEN – OF MENTON! It was an experience I’ll never forget. In a moment I would be ushered past the glittering tables of Menton’s main dining room where people with clothes much more amenable to the occasion than mine were enjoying a fabulous tasting menu, but it did not, would not, could not EVER compare to the sparkling beauty that was Menton’s kitchen. Not one pot was dirty, not one apron was askew. It was all brightness and beauty, and there was a respectful quietness as the cooks paid serious homage to each dish they plated. I wanted to work there. I wanted to live there! I wanted to take pictures and interview every single person in all three restaurants, but time was running out and Bonnie needed to get back to her customers at Sportello.