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Highlandtown's Gnocco won't stay under the radar for long

Since the beginning of the year, Baltimore has seen an explosion of restaurant openings. Some have gotten attention — Cosima, Gunther & Co. and Loch Bar come to mind — while others have quietly slipped onto the dining scene.

Gnocco, the dream of local chef Brian Lavin, falls into the latter category. But this is a restaurant you don't want to overlook. The space is charming, and the Mediterranean-inspired food is terrific.

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The menu entices diners with intriguing small plates, a few pasta dishes and a couple of large plates. It changes often to reflect the seasons and the chef's creativity.

One night, an Alaskan king salmon crudo dish was bathed in a sea urchin crema, and squid ink gnocchi was dotted with tomato-braised calamari. Another time, grilled veal sweetbreads were boosted with roasted corn.

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Lavin, who recently led kitchens at Fork & Wrench and Salt, has been honing his cooking chops and restaurant acumen since he was a 13-year-old busboy and dishwasher, working in various restaurants before becoming a line cook at Victoria Gastro Pub.

His career really took shape when he was a University of Maryland student and spent a year abroad. The Howard County native traveled throughout Italy, Spain and other countries, and spent time in Paris, where his sister was a pastry chef.

"That definitely influenced me and my eating philosophy," he said.

Just as Lavin carefully crafts his food at Gnocco, he has also created a bright, sophisticated bar area and a cozy, 22-seat dining room decorated with reclaimed wood furnishings by local maker Joshua David Crown Studios.

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The wooden backs on the dining chairs were surprisingly comfortable. We settled in, unaware we were about to be wowed by the evening's meal.

In addition to a drinks list that includes Spanish and Italian wines and a handful of craft cocktails, six beers and Prosecco are available on tap, our waiter told us. A dry cider is also available.

We were properly impressed with our small plates. For one, fresh Burrata cheese was surrounded by red and golden beets and a beautiful bouquet of red sorrel leaves, set in an old-fashioned, blue-flowered china bowl.

Another dish starred a wonderful grilled morcilla, a classic Spanish sausage with pork blood, with supporting roles played by smoked mussels, grilled green onions and a romesco sauce.

We are still salivating over the grilled Spanish octopus set amid a shaved fennel salad, a garlicky ajo blanco sauce and sweet grapes.

For a pasta selection, we settled on a silky black-pepper tagliatelle glazed with an egg yolk and punctuated with pancetta and a shower of pecorino. It was captivating in its simplicity.

Our large plates were flavorful, too. A roasted rack of lamb, divided into ribs, took traditional accompaniments to a new level with eggplant agrodolce, garlic yogurt and a mint salsa verde.

A rabbit porchetta was slow-roasted to juicy tenderness and enhanced with zucchini puree and marinated squash.

Anyone who has eaten at Salt has probably had the restaurant's goat cheese doughnuts glistening with lavender honey. At Gnocco, Lavin produces an equally good version. His puffy ricotta doughnuts are shiny with fennel honey and surround a scoop of house-made ginger ice cream.

There is also a daily selection of ice creams. We enjoyed the pale-green mint, resonating with the fragrant herb.

The chocolate panna cotta was a clever interpretation of the chilled custard, with a swipe of blueberry jam and a scattering of pistachios.

We finished our meal with delightfully smooth AeroPress coffee served in delicate flowered cups.

Gnocco, which opened in the former Brewers Hill Pub & Grill in June, hit the ground running. Once it's discovered, diners will be sprinting for reservations.

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