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Bringing Rome Home

Alum Finds National Acclaim With Baltimore Restaurant

By Sala Levin ’10

Brian Lavin '09

Photo by John T. Consoli

Photo by John T. Consoli

Semesters abroad are the stuff of wistful memories, fodder for stories of carefree evenings strolling the banks of the Seine or days climbing Machu Picchu. Brian Lavin’s semester in Rome gave him much more than that: It set him on a career path.

Lavin ’09 had worked in restaurants throughout high school and college, but it was Europe’s food culture that gave him the idea of opening his own, focusing on local, fresh, seasonal food and cultivating a homey, intimate atmosphere. “There are tons of little, tiny places all throughout Rome as opposed to huge, 250-seat restaurants,” Lavin says. “I’ve tried to bring that style of dining here.”

Thus was born Gnocco, the 34-seat restaurant that chef Lavin opened in 2016 with Sam White ’09—they met while studying abroad—in a corner rowhouse in Highlandtown, a transitioning neighborhood in Baltimore. Its success recently landed him a spot on Zagat’s inaugural national “30 Under 30” list, highlighting the country’s most promising young talent in the restaurant industry.

His path to Gnocco took him through chef positions at Salt, then at Fork & Wrench, two Baltimore restaurants, before settling on the space for his new venture. He “drove past once a week for the past three years” as he mulled the owners’ offer for him to transform the existing sports bar. “There were, like, 100 TVs in here. It was pretty dingy,” he says.

With its wood tables and low lighting, Gnocco’s vibe is now more cozy than seedy, befitting its name, which means “dumpling” in Italian but is also a term of endearment often used for children.

Lavin’s University of Maryland major in operations management has helped him navigate the non-edible aspects of restaurant ownership. “A lot of people who work in restaurants don’t think they have to go to college or get a degree, but it really was invaluable,” he says.

But it’s the Mediterranean-inspired food that has won Lavin acclaim. “Make your reservations now; Gnocco is on track to become one of Baltimore’s hottest restaurants,” wrote critic Suzanne Loudermilk in The Baltimore Sun last year, adding that she was “still salivating over the grilled Spanish octopus set amid a shaved fennel salad, a garlicky ajo blanco sauce and sweet grapes.”

Despite the public praise, Lavin hopes to keep Gnocco accessible and down to earth. “Before, this was a neighborhood bar, and we didn’t want to alienate anybody from coming here,” he says. Though the restaurant serves rabbit, veal sweetbreads and blood sausage on its frequently changing menu, Lavin hopes some guests will simply “come and sit at the bar and have a glass of wine and a pasta dish and get out for $20.”

“We in no way wanted to be pretentious,” he says. “We just want to make people feel comfortable—feel like they’re at home.”

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