An Italian trattoria in an unlikely spot mixes hearty and affordable fare with traditional flavors.
photographs by Justin Fox Burks
While waiting for friends near the front door of Lavoro’s, a humid breeze wrapped me in a breath of fresh herbs. Startled by the fragrance, I turned toward the restaurant that anchors the corner of Summer and Sycamore View. “Good Lord,” I said out loud. “It’s a hedge of basil.”
Intrigued, I poked around the bed, finding waist-high basil, thyme, rosemary, and oregano. Wandering farther, I discovered more beds tucked near concrete curbing with peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and newly formed cantaloupe soaking up the evening sun.
While house-grown produce is an established practice for Italian restaurants, the beds at Lavoro’s seem wonderfully out of place because the restaurant is located in a thicket of chains, including Krystal, IHOP, Shoney’s, and Captain D’s. Before Lavoro’s moved in, the location was a KFC.
Fortunately, this fast-food backdrop didn’t deter football coach Mike Working from joining his son, who wanted to open an Italian trattoria like Marzetti’s in Columbus, Ohio, a former landmark restaurant renowned for its pasta and a line of salad dressings still popular today.
“Marzetti’s was run by my wife’s grandmother, Gracie, an immigrant from Lucca, Italy, and she was a great cook,” Working says. “During the Depression, she sold meals out of her window for a nickel each.”
Gracie’s hard-working verve and traditional recipes shape the backbone of Lavoro’s, where pleasing the palate is more important than showing off. “We’re blue collar; nothing fancy,” Working explains. “Not every dish is for every customer, but we want to create an atmosphere where people will experiment with dishes from the Old Country.”
Open since 2008, Lavoro’s (the Italian word for working) has weathered ownership shakeups that brought in new partner Mel Gallimore and Working’s career change from coach to restaurateur. The memorabilia on Lavoro’s walls explains his football pride. A picture of Working’s dad, a former high school coach in Baltimore, shows him with the legendary Johnny Unitas, along with snapshot moments from Working’s own career. (Who is his favorite celebrity coach? Bobby Bowden, Working’s mentor when coaching at West Virginia University.)
These days, Working’s customers still call him Coach, but he’s spending much of his time in the kitchen, mixing 30 pounds of dough every day for Lavoro’s pizzas and bread, served at dinner and in thick slices for the restaurant’s paninis. Grilled but not greasy, the paninis are a hearty salute to the pressed sandwich, especially the Classic Italian filled with ham, salami, capicola, provolone, sliced onion, olive oil, and a bright cherry pepper relish. Save room for Lavoro’s house-made chips.
The restaurant’s hand-tossed pizzas are thin-crust pies that taste thick: crispy on the edges but soft and chewy inside. Almost two dozen toppings add depth and texture to warm cheesy mouthfuls of mozzarella, parmesan, ricotta, or feta. Customers can build-their-own pies or order one of five specialty pizzas, such as Carole’s Zucchini or the Pigskin, a hefty combination of ham, sausage, pepperoni, bacon, and salami.
Entrees at Lavoro’s are uniformly priced ($12.50 or an extra dollar for shrimp) and typically showcase a simple but pleasing mix of fresh herbs, roasted garlic cloves, and plenty of lemon. Lasagna Bolognese, for example, is an expertly layered stack of noodles, beef (no sausage) Bolognese, and a liberal dose of fennel. My favorite, portobello mushroom ravioli, owes gratitude to Gracie’s signature brodo, a flavorful Italian broth made with fresh sage and toasted walnuts for extra crunch.
Weekly specials also perk up Lavoro’s standard entrée menu. Working’s son, Michael, orchestrates the kitchen for the Tuesday Night Supper Club, an informal group of regulars who appreciate one-night specials such as roasted pork tenderloin topped with Buffalo mozzarella and a drizzle of arugula pesto. Gallimore, who grew up at her dad’s former Ripley restaurant called Tick’s Cafe, coordinates weekend specials and also makes Lavoro’s delicious house dressings. The creamy Italian is exceptionally good.
Gallimore, Coach, Michael, and Lavoro’s regular kitchen staff make for a lot of cooks in the kitchen, which could explain the inconsistent quality of some of the restaurant’s food. On our first visit, the entrees (especially the chicken Marsala and mussels special) were excellent. But on two different Monday nights, several of our dishes, including fried ravioli, sausage with marinara, and Judge Dwyer’s chicken, were disappointing. On our next visit, our table’s happy meter soared, especially when we polished off a creamy Limoncello cheesecake topped with freshly whipped cream and a touch of Amaretto.
Happily, Lavoro’s gets the small, but important, details exactly right. The mozzarella sticks and calamari are light and crispy. Gracie’s Antipasto is a plentiful and pretty plate of Italian salami, sliced provolone, artichoke leaves, red peppers, pepperoncini, olives, and a sprinkle of chopped celery. And then there’s the bread, served by the loaf (or two) along with seasoned olive oil for dipping.
These details, along with the restaurant’s friendly and heartfelt vibe, outshine the kitchen’s shortcomings. Add in a decent wine list and ridiculously affordable prices, and this gem in the rough on a busy Bartlett intersection will soon be a new family favorite.
Pamela Denney is food editor of Memphis magazine and writes the blog, Memphis Stew at memphismagazine.com/blogs/memphis-stew.