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Lavagna, Ristorante Italiano on 8th and G Streets, Barracks Row - Chef Vicky Alt Has Departed for Binghamton, NY

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I could have sworn that I had posted something on this place last year after my first visit, but I can't find a topic for it, so I must have been a little more drunk that night than I thought. I recall having a decent fried baby artichoke appetizer and some woefully undercooked gnocchi with pear and gorgonzola--nothing that encouraged me to return.

I had heard that they brought in a new chef this past spring, so Bob and I dropped in here for dinner on Wednesday night. Lavagna seems to be positioning itself somewhere between old-style Italian places like Trattoria Alberto and places selling more contemporary (and pricier) cuisine. The menu is brief and focuses mostly on simple preparations, house-made pastas, and fresh ingredients. It's an honorable concept, and I wish I could report that it is fulfilling that mission successfully.

Unfortunately, my experiences at Lavagna suggest it falls smack-dab into the overall mediocrity that marks so many Hill restaurants. It's not a terrible place, and there is even some respectable cooking going on, but the lack of refinement and carelessness make it a frustrating experience. For instance, the two parmagiano arancini that served as my appetizer on Wednesday were perfectly cooked, well-sized, and on a mild but pleasing marinara sauce. Their problem was that the parmesan was erratically scattered through the rice, so the flavor was mostly bland except for an occasional pocket of cheese flavor--very different from, say, Taylor's arancini with their molten-cheese centers. Bob's fritto misto also seemed ungreasy and appeared cooked well, yet the taste of the calamari was muted by a taste of raw flour.

Flouriness also marked the pasta in my fettuccine bolognese, though cooked more or less al dente. The sauce was okay, though no particular flavor stood out except pepper (the pork was so finely minced that one would be hard pressed to know this was a meat sauce). Bob's mussels were good-sized and tasty, with a rather peppery tomato broth, served with four thin croutons that proved inadequate to soak up the juices. The wine flights each of us had reminded me of similar service we had at Ezme a few years ago, and none of them stood out. Service was pleasant and even a bit overeager, with different servers duplicating others' efforts.

If Lavagna were out-and-out bad, I think I would have felt less frustrated than with the erratic nature of our experience. (Even that earlier gnocchi entree showed they had a good idea going, but a major lapse in the kitchen spoiled it.) I like the simplicity of the menu, and there is some skill to be discerned, yet the kitchen doesn't seem to have the overall finesse and reliability to make this a place I want to return to anytime soon. Too bad.

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After castigating this place a few months ago, I wasn't about to rush back here. But when I got an e-mail advertising their new, gently priced lunch service at half-off this week with a reservation, I decided to give it one more shot today. I'm glad I did. This was by far the best meal I've had here. I opted for their 50-50 burger (reg. $10)--half-beef, half-Italian sausage--in a soft foccacia bun with a lightly spicy red pepper aioli. While one might dispute the choice of bun and the patty was much less juicy than a regular burger, it had good flavor, and didn't pale that much in comparison to Birch and Barley's Brat Burger. Only the wimpy side salad disappointed; I wish I'd opted for the housemade potato chips. Bob had the sustainable salmon, a nice-sized fillet on a bed of roasted root vegetables and sauteed garlic spinach, in a lemon-ginger butter sauce. This was really terrific--the fish was moist, the accompaniments worked perfectly, and at half-off the regular price of $11, an outstanding bargain. The space is noisy, and the servers are still overfriendly while lacking polish, yet this is a welcome new lunch option on Barracks Row--what we had was a good, tasty value, regardless of the discount.

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[Don: The menu lists the current executive chef as Alex Ripley.]

Their motto is:

Local Farms*

Scratch Kitchen

Italian Cuisine

I hadn't been in for about a year, which was, IIRC, back when they were debuting this concept. All I recall from that last visit was that the Papa Weaver's-sourced pork was out of this world. I'm not sure why it took me so long to go back.

My craving was, despite the hot weather, for spaghetti and meatballs, but I ordered a charcuterie board first and never got to pasta. The board cost $18 for three items--house-made pork rillettes, gorgonzola of no named provenance, and horseradish parsley havarti (Milky Way Meadows)--plus house pickled vegetables and preserves, olives and crostini (which seemed to me more like foccacia). It was an ample amount. I, who hate to waste food, was going to leave the remnants behind, but was persuaded by the bartender to take them home. It made for an odd breakfast, but, hey...

I was there during happy hour (at the upstairs bar 4:30 to 7:30 Tuesday through Saturday, though the kitchen is not open at the beginning of happy hour). I got a beer I was unfamiliar with but quite liked (Evolution Sprung American Amber Ale) for the happy hour price of $4 per bottle. Wines are 25% off by the glass during happy hour, and craft cocktails designed by the bartender are $7.

Now I need to go back for spaghetti and meatballs ($8 for a half portion).

*All of the farms/purveyors they use are listed on the menu.

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The online menu looks more or less the same, but will be curious to see what's new. Part of what keeps me away from here is that I don't particularly like the space; it's not especially comfortable, well-decorated, or a place I want to linger in. I wish they'd give it an interior makeover.

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The new chef is Vicky Alt from Graffiato.  I don't know when she started, but apparently the menu has been overhauled.

Vicky Alt has left Lavagna, and is opening Citrea Pizza in Binghamton, NY in February - this may be a stopover for folks heading up to the Finger Lakes - I-81 runs very near the restaurant, and they'll be selling pizzas to go.

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