"Have you tried Gnocco yet?" a friend asked several weeks ago.
Gnocco (3734 Fleet St,  449-6540 gnoccobaltimore.com) has been on my to-visit list for some time, but for one reason or another, I hadn't gotten around to making the trip to Brewers Hill. And after a while, the restaurant fell off my radar.
Opened in the summer of 2016 by Chef Brian Lavin (who has cooked at both Salt and Fork and Wrench) and General Manager Sam White, Gnocco is truly lovely, with a menu you'll want to revisit again and again—from an updated smoky rhubarb Negroni ($10) aperitif that sparks your palate to the piping hot fried ricotta doughnuts ($8) that end the meal.
The setting feels right, too, like you've unlocked a hidden portal into the Platonic ideal of neighborhood restaurant. Understated, casual, and classic, Gnocco's two long rooms are wrapped in contrasting cream-colored and moody dark walls separated by a chair rail. Outside finds the glare of a Royal Farms; inside the restaurant is warm light, a generous stretch of bar, and the heady scent of good meals in progress.
Lavin's menu revels in the Mediterranean, and compact though it is, it's hard to choose among the ten or so antipasti (there are fewer pasta and entrée offerings, so that's a bit easier). Do you want plump fried oysters ($11) drizzled in garlicky tzatziki over a bed of fennel salad or a creamy grilled octopus tentacle ($13), brightened by a smear of fruity ajo blanco, a kind of white gazpacho, and brilliantly colored grilled red peppers? (I say get both.). Or to make it harder, consider the veal sweetbreads ($14), their delicate richness a foil to the lush, salty tonnato sauce, which, with the sprinkle of capers and some green onion suggest a clever take on tuna salad. Even though the razor clams ($13) were slightly gritty, I'd order them again just for the combination of briny clam, crisp nubs of pork belly, and silky white beans.
Antipasti portions are generous, so if you order one (and you most definitely should), a small, rather than the large, order of pasta should amply satisfy. Most days, four are available, all house made, and all offering something you're not likely to find elsewhere. The lamb ragu ($13 for a small portion), for instance, is served with pappardelle made from farro. The fresh artichoke agnolotti ($12 for a small portion) bursting with goat cheese and redolent of cipollini onion tastes like a spring day in the park—grassy, rich, and drunk on sunshine—whereas the ricotta cavatelli ($11 for a small portion) with toasted walnuts and rapini chopped fine enough to look like parsley reminds that a few cool days can still be welcome if they mean feasting on something a little hearty without being heavy.
Gnocco offers only two entrees, which feels rather refreshing. There's no pressure to do anything but graze, so why not? But if you're feeling you want a more traditional meal, by all means, dive in. The night we dined the choice was between a roasted half chicken ($24) and a grilled dorade ($29), and I chose the latter, which arrived at the table head intact and without a skeleton—all very neat and sweet. After my initial taste, the plate was passed around the table and returned to me sans flesh, sans skin. Luckily, my greedy companions had missed the potatoes, which had been smashed and browned in fat until they practically melted under a fork. All mine, thank you very much.
Gnocco is fortunate to have the service of Gilles Mascarell, formerly of Salt and Arômes, in the dining room. Calm—even on a night when the kitchen was slammed and running behind on orders—Mascarell knows the food and drinks menu inside out, and even more, knows how to make customers feel like he is there only for them, even when he is clearly taking care of several tables in the room. The rest of the staff offers no less kindness to diners, which, combined with the excellent food and a splendidly crafted cocktail and wine menu (with selections that hew mostly Italian, but includes some striking under-the-radar wines from the Austrian-Italian border), make Gnocco one of the most pleasurable dining experiences I've had in Baltimore recently.
Don't put off your visit. I'm a little embarrassed to be late to the party, but I'm very glad to celebrate Gnocco's success. Michael O., thank you for the reminder. Dinner is on me.
Gnocco is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, plus Sunday brunch.