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Vesuvio set off just a quiet tremor in the dining scene when it erupted about three months ago. It's located just off and below the French Quarter-styled lobby of the Best Western Governors Suites south of Rodney Parham on Merrill Drive. That off- the-beaten-track locale gives it sort of a speak-easy feel. Like you have to be in the know to go. We knew, so we went.
It's a pretty place, white tablecloths glowing in the soft lowered light, and though we didn't have a reservation — one is recommended — there was a nice round table large enough for the family. It was next to the piano player, which had its advantages and disadvantages. We had to raise our voices a bit to converse, but the gentleman played well, and when he switched from variations on Chopin to the theme song for “Charlie Brown's Christmas” we could all giggle and snort without disturbing the other diners.
But what about the food, you ask?
Vesuvio came highly recommended from various of our acquaintances, and in some areas it lived up to its reputation. Not all, sadly. But it's Christmas in Little Rock, not August in Pompeii, so we'll focus on the good, starting with the complimentary bread — the first a small plate of crostini topped with chopped tomato and the second slices of soft, sweet bread served with a tapenade. The second might have been served to keep the natives from getting too restless; service wasn't hasty, shall we say.
We're a pretty cheap family and so we avoided the $24 swordfish and the $28 filets grilled in cognac cream and tried a variety of the pasta dishes. Yours truly had one of the specials of the evening, ricotta-stuffed agnolotti topped with an arugula cream sauce, a combination of everything we love in life, and though fireworks didn't go off and the heavens didn't open when we dug in, it was tasty, to the last wipe of the bread. A bottle rocket or two might have gone off when we tasted our brother's cannelloni in a Bolognese bechamel, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but there it was, and it was good. We reveled in the fennel of the mortadella filling; say bravo to that. The manicotti served across the table was fluffy. The crab cake special on our left looked delicious, all topped in roasted red peppers, but the fussy crab cake specialist ranked it at about third in Little Rock's crab cake-off. We thought it was good, ourselves, though we know what put her off — the coating wasn't as crispy as she likes it. That's a personal thing.
The feedback on the eggplant parmesan was sharply divided: one thumbs up and one thumbs down. The thumbs-downer likes her melanzane more deeply fried. Again, that may say more about our family than Vesuvio's, no?
For dessert, we went for a couple of tartuffos, little mounds of ice cream dusted in cocoa, one chocolate, one cappuccino. A big yes on that.
We were confused by the Caesar salad, whole romaine leaves lined up with a dollop of dressing across their middle. Yes, we're able to cut up our own lettuce, but we'd rather someone else did. And we'd rather the antipasti menu hadn't described its calamari fritti as “deep fried tubes and tentacles.”
We lift a glass to the wine service at Vesuvio's; our white zin and the cabernet across the table nicely filled our $7 glasses. The wine menu is several pages.
There were numerous specials, and we're sure, based on the testimony of those we know, that there is some excellent eating to be had at Vesuvio's. Find it, and try it.
Best Western Governors Suites
1501 Merrill Drive
224-8051 (the hotel's number)
If tubes and tentacles aren't your thing, try the sauteed shitake mushrooms over grilled polenta. Next time, we'll try the rigatoni rosario, with mortadella, pancetta and tomatoes.
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Other info: Credit cards accepted. Full bar. $$$-$$$$.