Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Too many restaurants that claim to do Italian get their sauce from a can, their dough from a freezer, and their recipes from … well, maybe it's not even a recipe but a suggestion on the back of a box.
Fortunately, there are still places that try very hard, and Pia's is one. The rustic yet welcoming establishment sits on Conway's Front Street not far from the Toad Suck Medallion, a good location for a fine evening out.
We stumbled into the restaurant on an afternoon when traffic was down and it wasn't too hot outside. Inside were walls lined with local fine art, a painted tin ceiling and a checkerboard floor. The tables were covered in butcher-paper. A well-conceived skylight made ample use of natural light.
Our server quickly had our beverages out to us, along with fresh sweet Italian bread served up with black pepper butter. We decided to go with an appetizer, the artichoke and grilled tomato bruschetta ($7.99), which arrived shortly still bubbling from the oven. The slightly tart vegetables against the same sweet Italian bread (this time sliced, buttered, and crisped) was worthy of hoarding, even if bits of vegetables kept rolling off.
We were also presented with our salads. Our dining companion chose the Caesar, which probably was the way to go — proclamations of high regard were hoisted upon the simple yet ample plate and its balance of dressing, croutons and greenery. Our own house salad with a lemon-dill dressing was a bit naked in comparison.
Our entrees were sustaining. Our companion's choice, the cannelloni ($11.99), was a gigantic plate-length sheet of pasta cradling a bounty of cheese and beef under a fragrant marinara.
Our server was spot-on with his suggestion for my own choice, tortellini with a Cardinal sauce ($11.99). The tricolor tortellini pasta was a little on the salty side, but went well with the sauce. Make sure there's plenty of that sweet bread on the table to sop the sauce.
Desserts aren't on the menu — they're whatever the chef makes that day. Available on our visit were ricotta cheesecake, chocolate sundae, tiramisu, a couple of New York-style cheesecakes and an Italian cream cake ($6), which we chose to share. We were surprised at the variation from the norm. Instead of the coconut-and-custard heavy cake we've experienced elsewhere, this light delight, with a top layer of vanilla-flavored cake over a bottom layer soaked with lemon, a double custard filling and a dusting of cocoa, was a perfect ending to the meal. If it's available when you go, give it a try.
Pia's Italian Restaurant
915 Front St.
For sharing, the antipasto platter ($12.99) comes recommended as the perfect talk-over plate. Conversations can continue at ease over the variety of olives, salami and prosciutto, cheese, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and garlic. Add in a salad, and lunch is covered.
10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine*.