New York is home to hundreds of casual Italian "trattorias," and Lavagna, a restaurant in the East Village, identifies as one. It's more formal than most, fitting for a nicer dinner, but it keeps the uncomplicated, satisfying food at reasonable prices that trattorias are known for.
Take, for example, the appetizer Carciofo al Forno ($9), a roasted artichoke heart. It comes in three components, each with their own flavors and textures. There's the artichoke heart itself, mildly lemony and cooked until just tender; a smear of white bean purée, almost meaty in flavor and with the texture of a fine porridge; and cremini mushrooms, earthy and cooked so they are crunchy on the outside yet juicy within. Nothing too bold, but each component makes its presence known in a quietly pleasant way.
See also the Fedelini Fini ($14), one of the two vegetarian pastas on the menu. Fedelini is a long pasta, in thickness somewhere between spaghetti and cappelini, and it is dressed with a simple tomato sauce. The bright sweetness of the tomatoes is the dominant flavor, with dots of heat provided by garlic and freshly ground black pepper. Nothing different than I could have cooked at home, perhaps, but it speaks to the confidence the kitchen has in their ingredients.
A contorno of Broccoli Rabe ($6) was cooked expertly; first blanched, then briefly sautéed with large pieces of garlic. The broccoli rabe, left in large chunks, was almost buttery in flavor, betraying only a hint of its characteristic bitterness. One portion is large enough for two to share.
The word "lavagna" in Italian means a slate, or blackboard. Perhaps it's the straightforwardness of the food bringing out the poet in me, but I like to think of the name as appropriate to the food it serves. The ingredients themselves are a blank slate, with which the chefs can create almost anything; at Lavagna they are content to let the ingredients be, simply, themselves.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian. Follow him on Twitter @bklynvegetarian.