At Pastoral, serving pizza and other Italian fare in Fort Point, there is a cocktail named for the restaurant. Made with Lambrusco, maraschino liqueur, beer, and cola, it is fizzy, dark red, and illustrative. Order it once and you get something implausibly wonderful, a happy, syrupy, adult’s version of a cherry Coke, sweetness tempered with a squeeze of lemon. Order it on another visit and you’re served a concoction as sugary as a Shirley Temple. Try again and wind up with barely adulterated Lambrusco. Not-at-all adulterated Lambrusco would be better.
The same cocktail is completely different each time. One of the versions is great. Which will you land in the lottery that is Pastoral?
At its best, this is the restaurant chef-owner Todd Winer (Metropolitan Restaurant Group) wants it to be — bustling, hospitable, slinging pies for families who have just visited the nearby Children’s Museum, plying the after-work crowd with hand-crafted pasta and drinks. (In addition to creative cocktails, it offers locally focused draft beer and a wine list that largely divides its time between the West Coast and Italy.) The rustic-industrial decor — concrete floors, brick walls, garage doors, a communal farm table — enhances the casual, social feeling of the place. Servers and diners have one another in stitches with tableside banter. Winer’s son arrives, breaks a glass, gets teased by the staff. It’s like being in a heartwarming comedy that takes place in an Italian restaurant.
There are rustic, boldly flavored snacks: A knot of chewy dough folded around whole garlic cloves and blasted in Pastoral’s wood-fired oven, the garlic soft and golden, the dough suffused with olive oil. Fried olives served without fanfare in a small dish, like nuts; they are tasty enough to deserve a better presentation. Artichokes, torched in the oven and tipped on their sides, look like miniature ankylosaurs; pull off their armor leaf by leaf, scraping the edges with your teeth, until you reach the tender heart.
Winer is certified as a pizza maker by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, dedicated to the preservation of true Neapolitan pies; that wood-fired pizza oven, a red-tiled, dome-shaped beauty, is shipped straight from the motherland. Pies arrive at the table with blistered crusts, charred in spots. A pizza with fennel sausage, buffalo mozzarella, and fromage blanc is a crowd-pleaser, gone in minutes. Another comes topped with mozzarella, jalapeno, arugula, lemon, and bonito flakes that wave like live creatures when they touch the pie’s hot surface. The flavors — cream, spice, smoke, citrus — make for an unusual and delicious combination.
Tender, smoky tendrils of octopus curl around cherry tomatoes, olives, and chickpeas. Radiatori, named for their resemblance to radiators, have a wonderful texture, the pasta pliant and nubby — perfect for conveying to the mouth a rich sauce of tomato and milk-braised veal. (Pasta is available in full or half-orders.) A little pot filled with shellfish — lobster, scallops, mussels, and clams — looks New England classic, but there’s a sweet, winy broth reminiscent of Marsala sauce to swish the seafood through. Armagnac chicken sounds unexpectedly French, but it works. The bird is perfectly juicy, enriched by the brandy, shallots, and prunes. (Pastoral is shifting toward warm-weather menus, so not all of these dishes may be available.)
Not everything is perfect. Chicken meatballs are dry, although the red pepper sauce they are served with is lush and spicy. Mushroom and walnut “plins” — a stuffed pasta (“plin” means “pinch”) — in amaretto sauce have too much sweet, too little savory. The chicken comes with flavorless wild-rice fritters. A negroni di Pastoral is unexpectedly sparkling, and the dessert menu demands diversification. Offerings are either dough (chocolate chip cookies, Nutella pizzetta) after an already dough-heavy meal, or gelato. The latter, really, is all one needs, but the available flavors are as random as they are similar: lemon thyme-elderflower and spruce-lime. But such shortcomings can be shrugged off when Pastoral does a good job of abetting a good time.
It doesn’t always. On a crowded night, with a wait for tables and a specials list nearly as long as the menu itself, things fall apart. We are snapped at for sitting at a drafty bar table, unclearly counted as part of the restaurant for wait list purposes. (We had asked first.) The chicken meatballs remain dry. An oven-roasted beet arrives wrapped in foil like a campfire treat; neat presentation aside, it isn’t quite tender. Ricotta dumplings are heavy, made greasy by the mortadella butter with which they are served. We order radiatori and get rigatoni, with a fine but unmemorable Bolognese sauce. We order a soft-shell crab special and get soggy crab instead, the breading gone sad and limp: I wish I could uneat it as my first soft-shell of the season. And, most unforgivably, the pizza is bland, undercooked, and droopy.
Things that are easy to overlook when the food and service are more pleasant begin to grate. It’s a long wait for our meal. The place is awfully loud. And why is the lighting in the dining room so greenish and unflattering?
Pastoral is a natural fit in Fort Point — a big, relaxed restaurant with wood-fired pies, as welcoming to families as it is to the late-night crowd. But eating here is a gamble. Will you find the Pastoral that serves good food, where the staff goes above and beyond to make everyone happy? Or will you find the other Pastoral, where the specials aren’t and the pies are pale?
You can’t win if you don’t play.
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