Dining Spotlight: Lavoro's blue-collar Italian fare is on the money

It's funny how one day you don't know a place exists and the next day everyone's telling you about it. That's what happened with Lavoro's, the down-home Italian restaurant that recently opened in a former KFC at Summer and Sycamore View.

First there was a blog post. Then a friend called and asked about it. Another friend ate there and reported back to me, and a cousin sent me a gushing e-mail. When we stopped in for lunch, we ran into good friends. The universe was telling me it was time for an official visit.

Chef Tom Abrams, in the kitchen at Lavoro's, sautees shrimp  to be tossed with penne pasta for shrimp Napoli.

Photo by Photos by Ben FantSpecial to The Commercial Appeal

Chef Tom Abrams, in the kitchen at Lavoro's, sautees shrimp to be tossed with penne pasta for shrimp Napoli.

The muffaletta panini has ham, salami, olive and artichoke salad, and provolone cheese.

The muffaletta panini has ham, salami, olive and artichoke salad, and provolone cheese.

At the corner of Summer and Sycamore View, Lavoro's supplies sports on TV along with home-style Italian dishes.

At the corner of Summer and Sycamore View, Lavoro's supplies sports on TV along with home-style Italian dishes.

The Mediterranean salad at Lavoro's, a feast of  fresh vegetables and feta cheese.

The Mediterranean salad at Lavoro's, a feast of fresh vegetables and feta cheese.

 Lavoro's offers classic Italian sweets, including tiramisu.

Lavoro's offers classic Italian sweets, including tiramisu.

Lavoro's is exactly what it claims to be: Simple Italian food in a simple atmosphere, with an emphasis on sports.

Co-owner Mike Working explains it:

"In my family, all of the men were coaches and all the wives were Italian. The women liked sports, too, so at meals we always ate great Italian food and talked sports."

Televisions are tuned to sports events in the small dining room, but they're not blaring and not particularly distracting for the diner who's not interested in sports. And the food is good enough to suffer through a little NASCAR. The price is right, too.

The dinner deal includes a choice of pasta and a salad for $35 for four. We chose the shrimp Napoli, the chicken Alfredo, chicken Marsala and the lasagna. All were good; the latter two were standouts.

The lasagna is a big ol' gooey delight of a mess, served in a personal-size casserole dish so it can be contained. Layers of noodles, ricotta cheese and beef are baked under a spicy red sauce with a touch of one of tomato's best companions -- cinnamon. Since I discovered years ago that just a pinch elevates a tomato sauce, I find that it tastes flat without it. Kudos to Lavoro's, both for using it and for showing restraint.

The chicken Marsala pasta is a simple twist on the classic Italian dish. Instead of serving pounded breasts of chicken served with the mushroom, shallot and Marsala wine sauce, at Lavoro's tender strips of chicken breast are cooked in the sauce and served with penne pasta.

All pastas and salads are served with buttery, toasted slices of house-made bread that'll have you wanting more. Working calls it focaccia, but it's baked in a loaf. It's used for some of the restaurant's sandwiches; others are served on sub rolls that are not made in-house.

The pizza dough is also made daily and it makes an excellent crust (and pizza). It's rolled thin -- but not cracker-thin -- and gives way with a slight crunch to a chewy interior.

The pizzas come in 12- and 16-inch sizes, and you pick your toppings. The 16-inch is $12 (an additional $2 gets you three toppings) and I predict a thriving Friday and Saturday business will be built around the pizza and the $1 domestic draft beer. Toppings are generous, the sauce is restrained (as it should be; wet pizza is just wrong) and it also holds up well for carry-out.

Working's daughter-in-law (more on the makeup of the company coming) makes the desserts, including the tiramisu and a decadent but delicious chocolate ravioli. Tiny squares of ravioli are stuffed with dark chocolate and served atop a rich chocolate sauce that has a complex and spicy note. I suspect chile, maybe a touch of cinnamon and even mint, but these are guesses: Working says that if he tells me, he'll have to kill me.

The restaurant is owned by Working and his son, attorney Michael Working, and Michael's college friends Tom Abrams and John Fearrington.

Michael already lived in Memphis and Mike (that's the dad) and his wife planned to retire here -- but after a lifetime spent coaching football, mostly for college teams, Mike didn't plan to spend retirement working in a restaurant.

"I was definitely manipulated into doing this by my son," he said. "I knew nothing -- nothing -- about the restaurant business."

But Abrams and Fearrington, who were living in North Carolina, did, so the four joined forces and opened Lavoro's.

And who's Lavoro?

"Lavoro is an Italian word for laborer," Mike said. "We're blue-collar food, but also, our last name is Working."

-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223

Lavoro's

Address: 5849 Summer

Telephone: (901) 377-2141

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

Price: $

No smoking

Handicapped access: Yes

Alcoholic beverages: Beer; corkage fee on wine is $3.

Don't miss: The pizza, the chocolate ravioli.

What's hot: $1 domestic draft beer on Friday and Saturday.

© 2008 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 6

jjasper#251964 writes:

I ate here once - the pizza was amazing and the chocolate raviolis have been on my mind ever since!

rattlebone writes:

I really like the food here and have been a lot. It tastes so much fresher than other places and the staff is actually nice to the customers!! Anyone can tell most of it is made in the store. I also think it is a great place for a cheap date before a movie with one dollar beers. My wife calls in an order and drives thru to pick it up on the way home from work sometimes. Glad to see these guy get some press, they've worked for it. Get the chicken marsala and the chocolate ravioli.

rattlebone writes:

Great place for a date night with dollar beers. My wife calls in dinner from work and picks it up at the drive thru window. I'm glad these guys are getting noticed because they deserve it. It is really noticeable how fresh the food is. Get the chicken marsala and chocolate ravioli.

tsnorton#279656 writes:

I looooooove this place!!!

I love to cook Italian food and rarely find any place that does a better job than I think I could do myself at home. This is the place!

Their gnocchi is served with a beschamel (sp?) sauce, chunks of ham and fresh peas and it's amazing that such a simple meal could be so incredible and flavorful.

It is so rare to find a place that has truly wonderful, flavorful food and such reasonable prices. I really want to see them make it.

Tell everyone!

318flynn#225762 writes:

After reading the review and the above reviews, I will definitely visit Lavoro's the next time I'm in Memphis for dinner!

notanlines writes:

Let me clue you in on this: These are nice people (very nice), serving fine food at a great price. Good, blue-collar type food, WITH a smile, a genuine smile.

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