It's possible to find great Italian food in Boston beyond the borders of the North End. Head out to Fort Point, just steps from the Financial District, and you'll find the lunchtime mecca of the local businesspeople and artists. Sportello is a tiny restaurant offering simple yet gourmet Italian food in a minimalist diner-like setting. Located at 348 Congress Street above the innovative bar named Drink, Sportello is sleek and modern. Seat yourself at a gleaming white counter or head straight to the bakery corner, where you can stock up on cupcakes and cookies or pick up $6 boxed breakfasts that include tea or coffee, granola, a scone, a hard-boiled egg, and house-made preserves.
From your counter seat, you can watch the chefs cook calmly in the tiny, spotless kitchen. The ingredients seem to appear from thin air; everything is tucked neatly away. Everything about Sportello is clean and shiny, a grease-less version of the classic greasy spoon. While you peruse the menu, which doubles as your place mat, your friendly server will arrive with fresh, soft bread and a mix of olive oil, ricotta, and preserves for dipping.
The stars of the lunch and dinner menus are the soups, which will set you back about $9 but are large enough for a light meal. The most popular winter dish is the spicy tomato soup (see photo to the left), rich and creamy with a swirl of chili oil, accompanied by a grilled cheese crostini. Now, in warmer weather, it's replaced by a chilled tomato soup with poached shrimp and piperade. Also on the summer menu: a chicken and summer vegetable soup with basil pesto.
Salads and paninis are also available on the lower end of Sportello's somewhat pricey menu. For $13, try the broccoli rabe panini with pecorino, prosciutto, and cherry peppers. The crispy bread is buttered just enough to be delicious without greasiness, and the bitter broccoli rabe helps tone down the saltiness from the cheese and prosciutto. At night, the paninis disappear, so be sure to head over at lunch time if you're in a sandwich mood.
If you're willing to ignore the diner-style ambiance and spend more for your entree, try a pasta, meat, or fish dish. The papardelle with sauce bolognese and fried basil is an Italian spin on diner comfort food: mild, filling, and a little bit oily. At $17 for lunch or $22 for dinner, you might initially wonder if it's worth the price, but the sauce - a mix of veal, beef, and pork and finished with a bit of chicken liver - will win you over. Unfortunately, the fried basil, which is delicious, only makes an appearance as one measly crispy leaf on top of the mountain of wide noodles. Other entrees include salmon with summer beans and bacon; farfalle with clams, mussels, and radishes; and swordfish with tomatoes, capers, garlic, and parsley.
Desserts like the chocolate budino tart with sea salt and olive oil or the warm bread pudding with house-made jam and honey caramel may tempt you, or you can head over to the bakery across the room for a cupcake or pastry. Or, if you're bothered by the fact that you've already spent too much money in what is essentially a diner, head downstairs to Drink and have a drink. But for a neat little restaurant on the edge of the Financial District, perhaps the prices aren't really that unreasonable, and the quality of the food does rival much of what you can find in the North End.