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Foodies from the big city a few miles southwest might have heard good things about Thai Taste, but that's about all Little Rock residents know about the Jacksonville restaurant scene.
But recently, a friend was bragging about the authentic British brilliance of Wee Betty's. So we went there last Friday to check it out. Uh-oh. It was Veteran's Day, and our U.K. comrades were closed. Hey, daughter of the 4-foot-9 namesake, we'll try to get back by sometime soon.
But we can't be sorry we ended up at Roma, a straightforward Italian restaurant in a nearby strip mall. Our dining buddy had actually been there, so we weren't exactly flying blind. What we experienced was uniformly outstanding — the primary theme being bounteous portions of classic Southern Italian food at low prices.
We started with the stuffed mushrooms, five hefty button caps stuffed with a "crabmeat mixture" and baked in Roma's signature alla Panna sauce, a pleasing mixture of marinara and Alfredo. At $8.95 we weren't expecting a lot of crab, and we didn't get it, but the seafood-tinged breadcrumb stuffing was pleasant. Before the 'shrooms arrived we were served a basket of soft, tasty bread, likely a frozen product baked on-site. The well-herbed olive oil presented on a saucer was the perfect sop. The bread also worked well with our two entrees.
The pasta sampler ($7.95 with marinara or $8.95 for alla Panna) featured a trio of manicotti, lasagna and spinach ravioli. The alla Panna is not as mellow and creamy as Alfredo, nor as pungent as marinara. We love it. And we had zero complaints with the three pastas. The 2-inch tube of manicotti was a ricotta bomb; the same-size square of lasagna was creamy and cheesy; and the single ravioli was stuffed and surrounded with spinach and cheese. We easily made two meals from this bargain dish.
We also chose the Spaghettini OGB ($7.95). Spaghettini is a thin pasta falling somewhere between angel hair and spaghetti in thickness. The huge pile of pasta was sauteed in white wine and olive oil with a short ton of garlic and shallots and a bit of basil. We loved that Roma went large on this one — nothing wimpy about it. If you don't adore garlic and shallots, don't mess with the OGB. You can add meat for a paltry $1. We asked for one meatball — soft and a bit bland — and were charged 50 cents.
Because we were reviewing, we also nabbed a pizza to go. The dirt-cheap theme is spotlighted here. Prices range from $6.95 for a 10-inch cheese pie to a paltry $13.95 for a 16-inch supreme (any four ingredients). We chose a 12-inch sausage and mushroom ($9.95), and while it was decent, the crust was too soft and puffy. We don't know the pizza options in Jacksonville, but compared to the artisan pies we love in Little Rock, this pizza pales. But there is a lot more competition in the pizza arena than there is for classic lasagna, manicotti and ravioli, and in those arenas Roma really shines — particularly given the quantity/price quotient.
While none of the six desserts is homemade, our friendly waitress told us they are ordered from a specialty provider. We can vouch for the spumoni cheesecake ($4.95), a rich concoction of cherry (with cherries in it), pistachio and chocolate layers atop a chocolate cookie crust. It's drizzled with chocolate sauce, and the kitchen artists even spelled out Roma in chocolate.
Want to talk about affordable? Roma doesn't serve alcohol, but you are welcome to bring your own. The corkage fee? $1 — not per person, but per party, no matter how many wine (or other) glasses you use.
Roma is a pleasant place, nicer than you might expect in a strip mall. Rat Pack music plays, including a fabulous Dean Martin version of Roger Miller's "King of the Road" on our night. There's a Godfather poster back by the bathrooms and a general classic Italian restaurant feel.
We don't generally venture to Jacksonville for dinner. But we will now.
ROMA ITALIAN RESTAURANT
2126 N. First St.
If you want a glass of wine or beer with your meal, know your entire party can bring any beverage you want — and use as many glasses as you want — for $1. Really.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards accepted.