You might get the impression that, at 28, Brian Lavin is a tad impatient. As a sous chef at Salt in his early 20s itching for a place of his own, he scoped out a bar on a yet-ungentrified edge of Highlandtown, but couldn’t pull the financing together. While cooking at Fork & Wrench, he was tapped by his employers to be opening chef for Modern Cook Shop. But as that restaurant faced delays, Lavin, who grew up in Elkridge, circled back around to the Highlandtown spot, then the Brewers Hill Pub & Grill, and found its owners ready to make a deal. With minimal tweaking—new tables and chairs, lighting and bathroom fixtures, a coat of fresh paint—Lavin opened Gnocco in midsummer, its name a term of endearment or a singular potato dumpling.
Food. Inspired by the chef’s travels to Spain, as well as his stints working at the Foreman Wolf Group’s Pazo, the menu of small plates—fried olives with anchovy sauce, beef tartare, calamari with ajo blanco and cherry vinegar, interesting cheeses and salumi—along with such shareable entrees as pasta, whole fish and roasted rack of lamb—has a straightforward, rustic feel. But the chef doesn’t go for labels. “Sometimes when people say rustic, they think it means lazy,” says Lavin. While “you won’t find a lot of tweezers” in the kitchen—meaning no delicate plating—“tons of thought” has gone into the menu. And the short dessert menu (think gelato and panna cotta) will always include something chocolate, says the chef, “or my mother would be upset.”
Chef. Lavin graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in operations management, training that helps him with logistics and inventory control in his career as a chef, he says. At Salt he loved the scale of the place, and its attention to detail. From Foreman Wolf, he says, “I learned the structure of a successful kitchen, timing, and how things work.”
Decor. The long, corner rowhouse space—bar on one side, windows on the other— doesn’t lend itself to very much in the way of design. Gleaming white subway tile behind the bar, along with tables and chairs built from reclaimed wood by Joshua Crown Studios, create a clean, understated look. Jesse Harris built the conical pendant lights above the bar and sconces along the walls.
Bar. Sam White, recently the bartender of Cinghiale, is pushing amaro, the bittersweet herb-based digestif—both on its own and as a base for cocktails. “Amaro is fun, and it’s also pretty versatile,” says White, who also likes to pair cordials of vermouth and sherry with the restaurant’s savory small plates.
Verdict. While some bemoan gentrification’s plunder of dark rowhouse bars that serve up suds for breakfast, Gnocco brightened up one of those spaces and infused it with lively, approachable food and drink for the new neighborhood.
Gnocco. 3734 Fleet Street, 443-449-6540.