In June, chef-owner Brian Lavin opened Gnocco, a love letter to his time not long ago studying abroad — and eating and drinking — through Italy and Spain as a University of Maryland, College Park student. An August Baltimore Sun review of Lavin's cuisine called the Brewers Hill establishment “a restaurant you don't want to overlook.”
A recent Friday night trip confirmed that such advice applies to the bar, as well.
Behind Gnocco's dimly lit bar stood bartender and general manager Sam White, who served mostly wine and cocktails to the bar's small crowd and dining room patrons with a deft touch.
White honed his skills under a trusted brand — Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group's Cinghiale, where he began bartending in 2011 and worked his way to manager. There, he learned the intricacies of pairing wine with food and how to construct balanced cocktails. He educated himself on amaro, the herbal liqueur popular in Italy that now has a presence on Gnocco's bar menu.
A shared passion for Italian flavors comes naturally between Lavin and White, two 29-year-olds living in Upper Fells Point who were also study-abroad roommates. With experience leading kitchens at Fork & Wrench and Salt, Lavin oversees the food — including the luscious, homemade pastas — while White handles the bar and front of the house.
So far, it's a winning combination that White says has been embraced by the communities of Brewers Hill and Highlandtown. It was an easy claim to believe. As we hung out at the bar for a few hours, couples and larger parties of families arrived with reservations already in place.
Gnocco is an intimate experience given its size, including the 22-seat dining room. On this night, the bar had about eight seated patrons, with only a couple vacant spots. The low lighting added to the romantic ambience, so you could do worse for a date, whether it's a casual meet-up at the bar or a more formal celebration.
Regardless of why you're there, Gnocco's bar program will have you savoring your drinks. The confidence and knowledge gleaned from White's time at Cinghiale can be seen in Gnocco's bar program — a lean but smartly curated list of cocktails, along with red, white and sparkling wines.
Those looking to drink wine on a reasonable budget can find glasses of all three types in the $7-$10 range, while patrons in search of indulgence have options like a 2010 bottle of Manzone Giovanni's Castelletto, a full-bodied red, for $130. Gnocco could be described as both a destination and a neighborhood restaurant, and this range of wine smartly reflects the duality. It's as fancy or casual of a night as you want to make it.
There were also five beers by Maryland brands on draft (Union Craft Brewing, Flying Dog Brewery, the Brewer's Art, Jailbreak Brewing Co. and Monument City) and a D.C. Brau offering for good measure. A nice, appropriately Italian touch was the Prosecco Zardetto on tap. A heavy pour for $6? I couldn't resist.
There are plenty of routes to go here, but on your first visit, I'd recommend exploring the cocktail list, which White described as his twists on classics. We tried most of the cocktails (the list featured seven offerings, all $10), and there wasn't a miss in the bunch.
The Verona Knight, made with Bulleit rye whiskey, was White's playful variation of a Manhattan, with three Italian liqueurs — Cynar 70, Punt e Mes and fernet — supplying the bitterness to counteract the sweet. The Negroni Sfumato is a stronger take on the Italian classic Negroni in both flavor (thanks to a smoked rhubarb amaro) and alcohol content (White chose New York Distilling Co.'s 114-proof Perry's Tot Navy Strength Gin so the gin wasn't overpowered by the amaro).
Satisfied with all of our choices, a couple of cocktail standouts emerged. First was the Chinato Sour, White's variation on a New York sour. While the latter is typically whiskey-based and topped off with red wine, White uses New York Distilling's Dorothy Parker gin and chinato, an herbal liqueur White said is renowned in Italy for its perceived health benefits. I certainly felt better afterward.
Then came the Falconieri 79, a combination of flavors I had yet to experience, and did not expect to satisfy on a night that required scarves and gloves: Papa's Pilar Blonde Rum, a housemade espresso-spiced pear cordial and lime. The harmony, though, was unmistakable. White said the inspiration came from his and Lavin's time in Rome, where a shot of rum and a shot of pear juice went hand in hand at a local bar. The cocktail's name, fittingly, was the address where the two lived in Italy at the time.
Housed in the former Brewers Hill Pub & Grill, Gnocco is the latest addition to an area that has quietly announced itself in recent years as a rising-yet-approachable food-and-drink hub. Thanks to Snake Hill, Huck's American Craft, Gunther and Co. and now Gnocco, local diners and imbibers know Southeast Baltimore — and not merely Canton — has plenty to offer.