Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
HOT SPRINGS — Rosario Dispensa has worked in or owned restaurants in Hot Springs for many years. After taking a couple of years off to stay home as a family man, he told us, he’s back on the scene with his eponymous Italian eatery on Malvern Avenue. It’s been drawing raves from locals since it first opened earlier this year, and we’ll agree with these proclamations.
From the fresh fish, meat and herbs to the care that goes into the preparation, Rosario’s Ristorante delivers as fine a meal as we’ve had around here in some time. The veal marsala alone would make us return, but his ultra-hearty minestrone and other entries such as Dispensa’s special “wonderbar,” a rollotini-style presentation of Italian meats and cheeses, and the fresh red snapper are also reasons we’d put Rosario’s high on our Spa City restaurant list.
Dispensa took over a building that had been home to Vittoni’s, a longtime Italian restaurant — frankly, though, by last year that building appeared to have seen better days. Like what he puts into his entrees, soups and appetizers, Dispensa put everything into making the restaurant a cozy stopping place, complete with a large, friendly bar.
We had a brief wait on a recent visit. We recognized a lot of Hot Springs faces in the place. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, so we knew we would. Our waitress directed us to some of the appetizer and entree favorites among the rest of the crowd, as well as some good wine choices. The Santa Margherita pinot grigio was unavailable, but she found a comparable white wine that worked.
Rosario’s sold us immediately with a bowl of the richest minestrone we’ve had. Far from the watery style we usually encounter, this had a thick, stew-like presentation, and a deep red color loaded with a vegetable mélange and seasoned perfectly.
The restaurant isn’t stingy with its Caesar dressing — purists may say Rosario may go overboard with the Cardini-style mixture — but Rosario’s puts an individual spin on the romaine-and-croutons salad with tomatoes.
Another tasty starter was the grilled homemade sausage and peppers appetizer ($3.95). The aroma alone from the onions, sausage and peppers made us feel transported, if not to the old country, at least to a Brooklyn eatery straight out of “The Godfather.”
Later, when we spoke with the owner, Dispensa said the trick to his veal marsala ($16.75) — maybe our favorite presentation of the dish yet, with its mushrooms and capers — was the quality of the marsala wine. He offered that he’ll spare no expense in quality and freshness of all the ingredients that go into his dishes.
The “wonderbar,” which was one of the night’s specials and not on the menu, had several meats and cheeses combined separately and rolled up, then sliced into medallions and covered in a wine reduction. We were told it’s among the restaurant’s most requested items.
The Snapper Rosario ($16.25) came sauteed in butter and white wine and served with artichoke hearts, mushrooms, bell peppers and sun-dried tomatoes. It’s as fresh a filet of snapper as you’ll find anywhere. Other fish choices include linguine in clam sauce, fettucine Florentine, shrimp scampi and salmon.
For meat eaters, there is a 12-ounce ribeye ($18.25) or an 8-ounce filet ($18.50). Pasta entrees include fettucine Alfredo, pasta primavera, lasagna and manicotti (all in the $9.25 to $10.75 range). Chicken is served in three variations, including piccata or with pesto.
If the large serving size of entrees still isn’t enough for you, Rosario’s offers sides of pasta Alfredo, spaghetti, meat balls and Italian sausage for $2.75 and mushrooms for $2.25. Garlic bread is $2.50.
The home-made touch extends to desserts, and they include Dispensa’s own twists. For example, the cannolis come two to an order and include a chocolate flavored ricotta filling (rather than the white filling with chocolate chips or candied fruit that is typical of Italian cafes). The massive slice of tiramisu has tender but not drenched-in-espresso ladyfingers, with whipped cream folded into the mascarpone, and topped with chocolate shavings, creating heaven on a plate.
Italian and American Cuisine
1521 Malvern Ave.
The minestrone could be a meal in itself. Save room for the home-made Italian desserts.
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.