One of the ways you know a neighborhood is blossoming as a dining destination is that it starts developing distinguishable subidentities. You can clearly see this in South Boston in the increasingly distinctive personalities of the Seaport and Fort Point. Along Seaport Boulevard and Northern Avenue, the Seaport mostly offers tourist- and conventioneer-friendly chain restaurants and bars. Meanwhile, a mere block over in Fort Point is a cluster of independent chef-owned places along or near Congress Street—like Row 34, Drink and Tavern Road—with much more interesting cuisine and beverage programs. Pastoral, the new casual-Italian restaurant from veteran chef and first-time owner Todd Winer, extends the block’s tradition as the corner of the neighborhood where the food geeks want to hang.
Much pre-opening attention has been lavished on Pastoral’s wood-fired pizza oven, a gleaming behemoth of fire-engine-red brick that dominates one end of the dining room and turns out Neapolitan-style pizzas. You don’t need to be aware of Winer’s certification by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana for his use of stringently traditional ingredients and techniques to know that Pastoral’s pies are terrific. Nicely charred by a brief rest in front of 900-degree flames, the crust is chewy at the perimeter and best enjoyed with relatively simple toppings like the classic Margherita ($14) with basil and hand-torn chunks of the house’s fresh mozzarella (which appears on many plates here), or a superb loose fennel sausage ($16) on a blanket of fromage blanc.
Wood-fired knots ($7.50-$8.50 each), fist-sized turnovers of savory ingredients like good olives and anchovies, are prettily plated, but overstuffed enough to upset the balance of dough and extras achieved in the pizzas. A more successful non-pizza use of the wood oven is the artichoke alla guidina ($11), a variant of the classic fried artichoke of Roman Jewish cuisine, here a large specimen fire-roasted, flavored with orange and mint and stuffed with many butter-soft whole garlic cloves. The “roasted big beet” ($9) is another beneficiary of that oven, though its admixture of black Sambuca, feta and mint verges on weirdness, and its foil-wrapped presentation is quite homely. Appetizers include a plate of chicken meatballs ($9) with winningly crisp exteriors, resting in an eye-catching, zingy pool of red pepper conserva. Stuffed fried olives ($6) make for an irresistible bar snack: crunchy in their breadcrumb coating, steamy and briny within.
My expectations of the pastas at any joint that leads with pizza aren’t high, but Pastoral exceeds them with several extraordinary house-made versions. “Plins” ($17), small ravioli with a mushroom/walnut filling, feature a glossy, sweet Amaretto-based sauce and tender escarole. Ricotta dumplings ($16), puffy little pillows that fall on the airy side of the dumpling spectrum, are pushed into richness with sauce of pistachios and mortadella butter. Radiatore pasta ($16), cunningly shaped to recall steam radiators, are mounded atop another stunning, intense sauce, a ravishing ragù of braised veal breast and Gorgonzola dolce. I thought about this dish for days afterward, and then I had Winer’s mezz rigatoni ($16), with its absolutely dazzling Bolognese and dots of fresh fior di latte, maybe good enough to trump neighbor Barbara Lynch’s famed version. I also greatly appreciate their availability as half-orders, making it easy to enjoy pasta in the sensible, modestly priced mid-course portions of Italy.
Among the large plates, the oxtail ($21) makes the biggest impression: It’s huge, a cross-section of oxtail the size of a sapling stump, beautifully braised to allow lots of tender, fatty meat to be easily picked off the bone, coated with a relish-like onion reduction “gravy” and served with Toulouse sausage of garlicky pork over Puy lentils, like an Italian riff on cassoulet. Fabulous, but you’ll probably need help to finish it.
Pastoral continues the best local restaurant trend of 2014 by debuting with a strong bar program, with delicious original shaker cocktails like the Paloma-esq ($12) of mezcal, quinine-flavored vermouth and grapefruit, and refreshing beer cocktails like the Southie ($10) of bourbon, Aperol and lager. The Italian-leaning wine list includes four drafts ($9-$11/glass, $22.50-$27.50/half-carafe) and another three dozen bottles ($32-$72, most in the forties), including four sparklers, a rosé and an orange wine; nearly half are poured by the glass ($8.50-$13). Twenty draft beers ($4.50-$12) and another 18 in cans and bottles ($3.50-$13.50) favor small American (especially New England) craft breweries but toss in enough macro adjunct lagers and strong-flavored Belgians to please most crowds.
Echoing the worst local restaurant trend of 2014, Pastoral challenges conversation with rather loud volume levels. Service has that good indie-restaurant vibe: Servers are menu-literate, enthusiastic about the food and drink, but fairly informal in aspect and tone, and early expediting problems that led to some less-than-piping-hot pizzas being served appear to be abating. In all, Pastoral nets out as another impressive addition to a neighborhood that I hope works harder at marketing itself as Not the Seaport. Suggested slogan: “They got the glitz and Harbor views; we’ve got the great food and drink.”
-Fennel sausage pizza
-Artichoke alla guidina
-Oxtail & Toulouse sausage
Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11:30 am-3 pm, Sun., 11 am-3 pm
Dinner, Mon.-Wed., 5-10 pm, Thu.-Sat., 5-11 pm, Sun., 5-10:30 pm
limited afternoon and late-night menus
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Street, validation for nearby private garage
Liquor: Full license
Pastoral | 345 Congress St., Boston | 617-345-0005 | pastoralfortpoint.com