One of the keys to the 19-year success of Zaffino's by Nori is Nori. The owner greets all diners warmly, her accent making it clear she's an Italian immigrant. She seems to know many more people than not, and she works the room unobtrusively. Lori, Nori's daughter-in-law, was our waitress on a recent Wednesday evening, and she told us many nights every table is occupied by regulars. Loyalty is a must if you expect to stay in business for nearly two decades in the ultracompetitive restaurant business, and Nori surely is responsible for engendering much of that loyalty.
That said, folks wouldn't keep coming back unless the food was top-notch, and every dish we had during a long, relaxed dinner was excellent. We started with Bruschetta Romano ($9), a straightforward version of the classic appetizer — tomatoes, garlic, basil and lots of melty mozzarella atop toasted Italian bread, artistically drizzled with a balsamic reduction and garnished with a bit of fresh parsley. Our only suggestion would be using a little higher-quality bread — from Arkansas Fresh Bakery, perhaps.
Our entrees came with a choice of soup or salad. We were a little surprised to hear chicken noodle was one of the choices (not exactly Italian), but it was not standard-issue chicken noodle. It had plenty of shredded white meat chicken with lots of pieces of a short cylindrical pasta we think might have been ditalini. It was nicely al dente and worked well with the carrots and celery. The minestrone had lots of tomatoes and celery in a rich broth.
We didn't realize until our main courses came that we had ordered very similar dishes — Veal Marsala ($17.99) and Italian Sausage and Mushrooms ($17) — the similarities owing to the Marsala sauce, delightfully and simultaneously rich and sweetened by the cooked-down wine.
The Veal Marsala featured several tender floured and pan-sauteed medallions over a bed of al dente spaghetti. The many small slices of Italian sausage were more sweet than spicy and highlighted our other main course, which had sizable mushroom slices, all served over penne. Both the pasta and the mushrooms were al dente. The menu touted cream, but if it was there it wasn't prominent. Both dishes came in small bowls — not huge portions but certainly ample and reasonably priced given they're served with soup or salad.
All five of Zaffino's desserts are homemade, and the quality shone through in both the dark chocolate creme brulee and the cinnamon bread pudding we tried. The dark chocolate made for a rich brulee. Zaffino's take on bread pudding was a huge portion that was lighter and less dense in texture than most bread puddings and bold with the cinnamon. We loved it.
Zaffino's by Nori is a comfortable place. Tables feature red tablecloths. There's a nice Italian mural scene on the short wall, and black-and-white photos of Italian scenes on the longer wall. The only decor anomaly is an Eiffel Tower screen by the bathrooms that hides a service area.
Our only suggestion beyond upgrading the bread is addressing the weak wine list. Sherwood isn't a wine mecca, but a few more selections and some slightly upper-scale choices would be appreciated.
Otherwise, Zaffino's by Nori is an absolute winner. And Nori is a big reason why.
Zaffino's by Nori
2001 E. Kiehl Ave., Sherwood
Just a few weeks ago Zaffino's by Nori began serving lunch. The menu is relatively small, but there are a few salads, soup, eight pastas and both eggplant and chicken parmesan. The main courses range from $7.99 to $9.99.
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9: p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. Saturday.
Beer and wine, credit cards accepted.