An Italian trattoria in an unlikely spot mixes hearty and affordable fare with traditional flavors.
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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.