The dish that most excites chef Sabrina Tinsley at her new Capitol Hill business, La Dispensa, is a “walking lasagna.” It’s not labeled as such on the menu, just Lasagne Verdi or Lasagne Vegetariane under the hot entrees section. “I don’t know why I’m calling it this in my mind,” says Tinsley, a little proud and a little chagrined; “I don’t usually say it out loud.” But she should: Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to order an “extremely convenient” single portion of Osteria La Spiga’s classic bolognese lasagna in a cup that preserves the warmth of the pasta but doesn’t overheat your hand so you can eat it on the go?
If Tinsley’s Osteria La Spiga is a certified dinner destination for northern Italian fare like tagliatelle in a white truffle butter sauce and tiramisu, La Dispensa, or “the pantry” in Italian, is its daytime foil. A deli and gastronomy shop that opened last month in Chophouse Row, La Dispensa sells grocery items like olive oils and balsamic vinegar as well as hot and cold foods like the Pane e Panelle — a street food-inspired chickpea fritter panini on house-made turmeric challah buns, which has been a surprise hit with employees at La Spiga — and a wildly popular porchetta panini named “la Rosie” after the shop’s logo and the first pig Tinsley ever owned.
Everything’s either made in-house or imported from Italy. As the walking lasagna signals, you can take anything to go pretty easily, but you can also dine in, snacking on fried piadina chips and cured meats and cheeses while sipping a glass of wine or aperitivo — vermouth on the rocks or a low-alcohol cocktail like the Aradia, blending sherry, vermouth, and orange bitters. These are available during “Italian happy hour” Monday through Friday 4:30 to 6 p.m., which is as late as La Dispensa stays open right now.
The limited hours and lack of weekends are Tinsley’s attempts to achieve two major goals. For one, she’s chasing that holy grail of independent restaurant industry workers: a sustainable job that doesn’t demand late or weekend hours so staff is empowered to stick around and grow with the business. “I’m not saying no to weekends and later hours, I’m just saying let’s give it a go and see if we can make the business work within this time frame,” she says. “We plan on doing delivery and shipping and all of that, so I feel like we’re going to be able to fill the work day with orders, whether we’re serving guests in the spot or not.”
For another, she’s trying to capture some of Italy’s aperitivo magic, that “quintessentially Italian way to transition from work to play—a world away from the chaos of happy hour in the United States,” as Punch describes the concept. “There’s kind of this void, this missing piece of the Italian culture that we love so much when we go back to Italy,” Tinsley says. “We want to fill that void, see whether we can create a little more community, that social hour, the aperitivi before dinner, that social necessity that you can find in Italy that is kind of missing here because we’re all so caught up in the hustle and bustle and the work.
“We’re driven by something different here.”