In a neighborhood that's seen an explosion of sleek, modern restaurants and opulent housing, Cafe Prego is a welcome throwback to a simpler time. Sure, the restaurant across the road may advertise itself as an "ultra lounge," but Prego remains the rustic, run-down charmer on the block, blanketed in vintage prints, neon beer signs, and at least three non-functional analog clocks. The dining room is close and cozy, lit by a hodge-podge of Christmas lights and, on the night we recently dined, the fading winter sunset.
Working off some old information, we hit the dining room right after five, and while the door was open, we were politely informed that the kitchen didn't actually start serving until 5:30. This wasn't a big deal, as they were more than happy to start us with some drinks and salads. We ordered the Prego Salad ($3.95, a dollar more to split), a fresh plate of mixed greens, mild red onions, tomatoes, and a tangy house Italian as good as any we've ever had. By the time we finished with the salads, the kitchen was ready to go and we dove right into the menu.
We've always thought that bread is the most proper way to begin a meal, and the half-order of Foccacia Bread ($1.95) at Prego is one of our favorites. The half-order is four large pieces of crispy, chewy bread served with a dish of olive oil and fresh-ground pepper; we can't imagine a full order for a table less than six people. The bread is piping hot, with a firm texture that goes from a crunchy, slightly oily outside to a tender, full-flavored center. The olive oil for dipping could have been one of the more floral varieties to cut the fresh pepper, but the bread was good enough that the oil was just an afterthought for us anyway.
Ordering pasta is a treat at Prego: pick your favorite noodles (fettuccine, vermicelli, or penne) and then your favorite sauce from a list of classics from marinara to pesto. This mix-and-match method of ordering pasta seems so simple that we found ourselves wondering why more places don't do pasta this way. We decided on Vermicelli Bolognese ($9.50), and were treated to a bowl of well-cooked pasta covered in a healthy amount of meat sauce. Tucking into the bowl, we discovered the downside of ordering pasta this way: the noodles were obviously cooked separate from the sauce, leaving the bolognese rather watery, lacking the necessary addition of starch that comes from finishing the noodles in the sauce. The sauce itself was tasty, if a touch sweet, but that's more of a matter of personal preference than an actual complaint.
If the bolognese had some weak points, our second dish, Tortellini Carbonara ($12.95), more than made up for them. Each bite was a wonderful combination of firm, tender pasta stuffed with savory cheese and coated with a thick cream sauce. Bits of mushroom and prosciutto round out the flavor profile of the dish to make the whole thing a decadent and delicious experience. Tortellini is notoriously prone to both drying out or getting soggy if not sauced correctly, and the Prego version threaded the needle of texture quite nicely, impressing even those of us who aren't usually fans of tortellini or cream sauce.
People who aren't fans of basic pasta dishes can still find something worthwhile, including a rib eye steak with Cabernet demi-glace, a pork tenderloin with mustard sauce and the spinach-stuffed Chicken Roberto. There are also a couple of seafood dishes on the menu, including salmon and shrimp, as well as Italian classics like eggplant Parmesan and veal piccata.
For dessert, we ordered a cup of Chocolate Creme Brulee, a dish that seems to be the most popular meal-ender in Little Rock. But if a restaurant is going to offer a dish that's found so many other places, take Prego's example: this was one of the best examples of creme brulee we've yet tried. A thin veneer of caramelized sugar over a smooth chocolate mousse delighted, and the fresh whipped cream on top brought the whole thing together into a blissed-out chocolate dream.
Given the choices that surround Cafe Prego, it would be easy to overlook the small wooden house with the terrible parking, and there's certainly nothing cutting edge or modern about the place. But if you're like us, there are times when a cozy dining room trumps any sleek stainless steel bar, and that's when Cafe Prego is our favorite destination. It's down-home cooking, Italian-style, and the food, atmosphere, and staff all come together to provide a place to have some comfort food and step back from the modern world.