Stephen Cheung is replacing an electrical switch plate on the wall of Lavagna, his new restaurant on Barracks Row, just hours before the Italian eatery is set to serve its very first guests.
Cheung is a baby-faced 27-year-old, and Lavagna is the first restaurant that he has ever opened, but he’s calmly attending to all the details, even as the minutes until the grand opening tick by.
It’s not exactly his first rodeo. Cheung’s parents have owned and run Fusion Grill, just a few doors down the street, for almost 30 years. The young restaurateur’s knowledge of the food business and his familiarity with the neighborhood — he grew up just a few blocks away — bode well for his Italian eatery.
Inside the freshly painted storefront, the decor and menu hew to a concept that general manager Mark Walsh sums up with the phrase “fresh, simple Italian.”
Cheung and Walsh have transformed the space formerly occupied by Starfish Café into a welcoming dining room. Gone are the undersea-themed knickknacks and the downstairs bar that dominated the space. Instead, warm terra-cotta walls, simple wooden tables and exposed brick walls provide a neutral, convivial backdrop.
Lavagna means “chalkboard” in Italian, and the name is meant to connote a menu that changes frequently with the seasons. The restaurant’s namesake shows up as soon as diners are seated. Waiters hand them a small chalkboard with the bill of fare handwritten on it — there’s little chance this hefty souvenir will walk away in someone’s purse.
The fare certainly lives up to its “simple” billing, and the menu’s format is refreshingly direct: Appetizers are $7, pastas are $15 and entrees are $19. The starters include classics such as a Caesar salad tossed in a pleasantly garlicky dressing and a caprese salad that features layered slices of milky mozzarella and tomatoes, slightly roasted to coax maximum flavor from the flesh.
Pastas, though, steal the show. All are made in-house and have the airy-but-substantial texture that only a freshly rolled noodle offers. A classic dish of spaghetti and meatballs adds parsley-flecked beef and a bright tomato sauce to the mix. And the seafood pasta dish was a standout, with hunks of lobster, scallops and shrimp tossed with radiatore pasta and a creamy tomato sauce.
“It’s like a tomato bisque with seafood,” the waiter promises, and he’s right.
Entrees are straightforward, including a beef filet and a roasted branzino, all served with a rotating daily vegetable (it was grilled asparagus on a recent visit).
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.