When plotting a culinary tour of Charlottesville for visitors from other cities, too often we find the top spots can easily be counted on one hand. At P+K we’re very partial to places you can proudly take visitors from other food cities and expect a strong vibe, interesting crowd and food that takes some risks. You might say we’re big on restaurants with big balls.
Which brings us to Lampo, a Neapolitan pizzeria in the Belmont neighborhood - Charlottesville's analog to Brooklyn - whose food, drink and vibe pleasantly jack your jaw and immediately make you forgive the no-reservations policy and the sometimes hours-long wait for a table. It's our go-to for visitors we want to show a gritty, cool side of this food town.
And speaking of that wait, let's be honest: in addition to a culinary high, a coveted table at Lampo inspires a fleeting A-list buzz that enhances the experience. If you are so inclined (and we are), you may observe the dinner theater of newcomers at the door looking sucker-punched upon hearing it will be three years before a table is available to them. This news usually lands like a wrecking ball on some hungry soul's evening, turning their mood on a dime from hopeful to sour, and it brings to mind one of our favorite snippets of satire from Kurt Vonnegut: I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight? For the record, we've been on both sides of this equation, so no hard feelings to the losers on any given night. However, our bartender had good insights about when the place is busy and when it isn’t. During Fridays After Five: No. Anytime most Cvillians are on the mall or at the pavilion: No. Any other time: Yes.
Recs + Rants:
- Hit The Bar - By now, can we all agree on the virtues of dining at the bar? Aside from basking in barman Andrew’s charm and witnessing the love and craft he dials into your cocktail, opting for the bar sometimes means bypassing the wait completely. Savor the drinks. Ask lots of questions. Get educated. Andrew is a scholar of vermouth, amaro and bitters.
- Consider the Sitter - If you bring kids, don't be an entitled jerk about your wait time. And if your kids aren’t mature enough to chill while you wait, Guadalajara is a block away. Really, it's not an ideal spot for small kids unless you sit outside. Get a sitter, make it a date night.
- Down Some Cocktails - Have one or two while you wait outside to pass the time, and another right when you land at the table. Our Favorites: Bitter Giuseppe (A bold and bitter twist on the Americano.), Negroni (Solid ingredients do their thing. We love the Cocchi di Torino vermouth.), and Hell & Honey (You cheers, you sip, and suddenly you’re sitting next to a campfire just after the wind changes on a cold night with smoke caught in your throat. Moments later you’ve mistakenly bitten into a chili pepper, but you’re quickly soothed by bits of crushed ice and a stroke of honey. It’s the ex-smoker’s cocktail, it’ll give you the just-inhaled tingle, but leave you with sugar on your tongue. And no lung cancer.)
- Go Big or Go Home - Go with the Hellboy Pizza, a permanent guest star on the specials menu that blends an orange blossom honey and scorpion pepper oil with soppressata and house-made mozzarella. You’ll want to punch your Italian grandmother in the mouth for never making this for you. (She's tough as nails and will understand.) Also legit is the Margherita DOC, a classic that always leaves us smiling and nodding like we're suddenly privy to a scandalous-as-hell secret. The Prosciutto Pie is also worth every calorie - fresh arugula, plenty of prosciutto, a mild cheese with white sauce. The crust is absolutely the best part. We like tomato sauce too much though to be a complete devotee to this pie.
- Respect The Tradition - If you don't know much about this strictly certified style of pizza, Wikipedia it or ask your server. It’s been said there’s no such thing as a dumb question. What’s dumb is ignorant whining about the crust, size and texture that are distinct rules of this style of pie. The engaging crew loves to talk about the food, so strike up a conversation and open your mind. If you decide you don’t like Neapolitan pizza, too bad for you. And, for the love of Margherita, don't even think about complaining about the "burnt crust".
- Let It Rest - Speaking of hot stuff, treat your pie like a steak right off the grill. Let it sit for a couple minutes before you cut into it. The roof of your mouth and the fragrant, soupy middle will thank you. Sip your cocktail, watch the poor saps being turned away at the door for a spell, then dig in. Don’t believe us, just take it from Mario Batali.
- Eat Your Veggies - When our pizza is this consistently good, we hate to say that, like flaky lovers, eventually we take it for granted and our eyes start to wander. Some of the most interesting dishes on the menu fall under Insalate. The Cavoletti di Bruxelles (shaved Brussels sprouts salad with hazelnuts and pecorino) is so good you'll want to follow our lead and order a second for dessert. Another we just can’t get enough of is the Barbabietole Arrosto (roasted beets, pistachio pesto and gorganzola). Yes, please! Really, vegetables should not be this good.
- Say Yes To Dessert - Let's not waste time worrying about pious platitudes here, just get the Zeppoles. They arrive at the table with sugar crackling, syrup caramelizing and steaming with tender freshness. Squeeze lemon juice over them and surrender to hedonistic happiness.
- Pro tip - Pranzare (translation: have lunch) If you can't manage the dinner wait, roll in for lunch when the rush is easy as pie and the crew is fresh and chatty.
Big picture, what gives us real pause and mad respect for Lampo is how they've crafted a dining experience so urbane and electrifying (see: lightning bolt logo) from utter simplicity. They aren’t reinventing the wheel here, they’re just bringing fresh, seasonal ingredients to the mise. Chef & author Barton Seaver nicely reflected on the philosophy of what we believe is happening at Lampo:
"I, like most young chefs, initially thought that the best ingredient on the plate was me, that through my manipulation and effort, I was going to make plates that wowed. But as I tasted the produce that was being brought to my kitchen, I began to understand that the flavor of an unadorned, summer-ripe tomato would never be bested, not even by my greatest efforts. That's when I learned to step back a little, to take myself off the plate. I then understood that my role was to taste the ingredients, come up with intelligent and supportive pairings, and do only what was necessary to get those flavors to the plate."
The brains and brawn behind Lampo -- Loren Mendosa, Ian Redshaw, Mitchell Beerens and Andrew Cole - personify the concept of keeping it real. Celebrity does not appear to be an objective here. Not once have we walked away with the impression that any of them is concerned with advancing a personal brand. It genuinely feels like it's all about the food. In a world where shameless self-promotion on social media feels like the norm, this shit matters to us. Ingredients are sourced locally, and you get the sense these cats have actual relationships with their farmers and producers. The locavore love in the air is so thick you could cut it with pizza scissors. 86ed are ingredients such as ego, fuss, complication and self-righteousness.
You can't go wrong at Lampo. Just go and you'll get our drift.