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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

At Vesuvio Bistro, an old friend finds a new home

Posted By on Tue, Sep 10, 2013 at 6:37 PM

Osso bucco
  • Osso bucco
It was time for a change. The small, quaint restaurant-in-a-hotel had defied all odds and reached the limits of their former space. Overcoming a particularly odd location in the basement of a Best Western in a completely inconspicuous area of West Little Rock, Vesuvio Bistro was growing up and it was time to expand. They would not move far, just a short hop across Rodney Parham Rd, taking over an old, brightly colored Mexican restaurant. But aside from an expanded dining area, what changes were in store for the new Vesuvio Bistro? Thankfully, not many. Fans of the former restaurant may rest assured that the folks behind the restaurant's success still know their way around a kitchen (even a new one), and are equally adept at how to attentively and flawlessly serve their customers.

The new Vesuvio is, of course, much larger, more spacious, with more opportunities for seating larger groups. Indeed, the new space seats around twice as many as the old, which means a shorter wait for tables and less chance for frustrated customers faced with difficult-to-obtain reservations at peak operating hours. But even with its larger space, Vesuvio has not lost its charm. The restaurant is carefully and wisely sectioned by large divider panels and an assortment of separate rooms. It gives the diners a sense of intimacy, despite the comparatively larger sprawl.

  • Antipasti
Service, on our visit, was entirely on point. Knowledgeable, welcoming, not overbearing, and patient. Their love and passion for the restaurant came through in their attitudes and all were made to feel welcome in Vesuvio’s new home.

The food was, not surprisingly, well received by all in our party, and despite the fact that you’re likely to drop a bit more coin here than you would at any one of the popular chain Italian restaurants, it’s clear that you are paying for quality.

To begin our meal, a few plates of complementary tomato and onion bruschetta arrived at the table. The tomato was fresh and flavorful, the bread was on the crunchier side, but it was an encouraging start. We were more impressed with their bread basket which boasted a lovely kalamata olive tapenade—a salty, savory accompaniment we slathered generously across our soft, chewy bread. A lovely beginning to the evening; all were excited to continue on.

A few "Chef's Choice" antipasti plates ($30) hit the table for all to share. Each arrived with three cheeses, three cured meats, and a small bowl of olives. Cheeses included a nutty fontina, a sharp peppercorn pecorino, and sweet, buttery asiago. The presented salumi included a spicy coppa, hot sopressata, and citterio bresaola ( aged, dried, and seasoned beef). Each item was splendid, and while the portion size of each plate was sufficient for 4 to 6 people, everyone had to use a bit of restraint so as not to selfishly polish off the whole appetizer on their own. We thoroughly enjoyed our caprese salad ($10.75), as well. A large ball of fresh mozzarella came quartered and centered on a plate, surrounded by a flower-like arrangement of bright red tomato topped with shreds of basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The tomatoes tasted as if they were picked at the peak of freshness and all who sampled it fought for the last bite.

Bone-in veal chop
  • Bone-in veal chop
The night’s specials proved to be the most successful. The bone-in veal chop ($38) was probably the most favorably received of the evening. It was almost fork tender, one could almost completely dispose of their knife—the way any decent slab of veal should be. Rich, cooked to perfection inside with a nicely charred exterior. It came out slathered in a rub of roasted, minced garlic and parsley which only added to the deep, savory flavors of the meat. The veal came paired with creamy mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus. It would be a shame to never see this special make a return visit to the menu.

The pork osso bucco ($32) was another star of the evening. It arrived to the table amongst many "oohs" and "ahhs," given its stunning presentation and generous proportions. The large pork shank sat on end, a towering spectacle that caught the attention of everyone at the table. The meat was slowly braised and came served in a rich demi-glace flavored with pork drippings.

The magical wheel of cheese
  • The magical wheel of cheese
The spaghetti chitarra ($18.75) has always been a popular dish at Vesuvio. It's a bit of a spectacle, honestly, but it never fails to impress. Hot pasta alongside portabello mushrooms are thrown in a large wheel of parmigianno reggiano (which is so large it must be wheeled around on a small cart), stirred around a bit until well coated, and plated. It's popularity has probably been fueled a bit more by its entertainment value than strictly by its flavor, but it's a solid pasta dish. I felt it lacked that biting saltiness you'd expect from a good parmagianno, but it was rich and flavorful nonetheless.

Our dessert course began with a splendid cheesecake made with ricotta ($6.50). The ricotta imparted a creamy, light texture to the cheesecake, making it less dense than you might expect from a more traditional version. A dollop of cloud-like whipped cream rested on top, making this the clear winner among desserts at our table. The tiramisu ($6.50) was also well received. It had a tempered sweetness, a sign of authenticity, but was utterly delightful. We were less impressed with our molten lava cake ($6.50), finding the cake to be a bit too dry for our liking, despite the fact that it was filled with dark chocolate fudge.

Long time fans of this legend among Little Rock Italian dining will not likely be disappointed with the changes at Vesuvio. For the most part, the menu is untouched, but a spacious new dining room and more comfortable accommodations for larger groups makes the change of space a wise move on the part of Vesuvio's owners. It's likely that Vesuvio will continue to thrive for years to come, and perhaps if they outgrow their new digs, we'll be seeing a second location at some point. One can only hope.

Vesuvio Bistro is located at 1315 Breckenridge Dr. Little Rock. (501) 246-5422. Open Sunday - Thursday 5:00 - 9:00 pm, Friday and Saturday 5:00 - 10:00 pm.

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