It was time for a change. The small, quaint restaurant-in-a-hotel had defied all odds and reached the limits of its former space. Overcoming a particularly odd location in the basement of a Best Western in an entirely inconspicuous area of West Little Rock, Vesuvio was growing up and it was time to expand. They didn't move far, just a short hop across Rodney Parham Road, taking over an old, brightly colored Mexican restaurant. But aside from an expanded dining area, devotees worried what changes might be in store for the new Vesuvio Bistro. Thankfully, not many. Fans of the former bistro may rest assured that the folks behind the restaurant's success still know their way around a kitchen (even a new one), and are equally adept at attentively and impeccably serving their customers.
The new Vesuvio is, of course, much more spacious, with more opportunities for seating larger groups. Indeed, the new space seats around twice as many as the old, which means a shorter wait for tables and less chance for frustrated customers faced with difficult-to-obtain reservations at peak operating hours. But even with its increased capacity, Vesuvio has not lost its charm. The restaurant is carefully and wisely sectioned by large divider panels and an assortment of separate rooms. It gives the diners a sense of intimacy, despite the comparatively larger sprawl. Service, on our visit, was entirely on point. Knowledgeable, welcoming, and patient, the servers' love for the restaurant came through in their attitudes and all were made to feel welcome in Vesuvio's new home.
To begin our meal, a few plates of complimentary tomato and onion bruschetta arrived at the table. The tomato was fresh and flavorful. The bread was on the crunchier side, but it was an encouraging start. We were more impressed with the bread basket, which boasted a lovely kalamata olive tapenade — a salty, savory accompaniment we slathered generously across our soft, chewy bread. A lovely beginning to the evening; all were excited to continue on.
A few "Chef's Choice" antipasti plates ($30) hit the table for all to share. Each arrived with three cheeses, three cured meats and a small bowl of olives. Cheeses included a nutty fontina, a sharp peppercorn pecorino, and sweet, buttery asiago. The presented salumi included a spicy coppa, hot sopressata, and citterio bresaola (aged, dried, and seasoned beef). Each item was splendid, and while the portion size of each plate was sufficient for four to six people, everyone had to use a bit of restraint so as not to selfishly polish off the whole appetizer on his own. We thoroughly enjoyed our caprese salad ($10.75) as well. A large ball of fresh mozzarella came quartered and centered on a plate, surrounded by a flower-like arrangement of bright red tomato topped with shreds of basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The tomatoes tasted as if they were picked at the peak of freshness and all who sampled them fought for the last bite.
The night's specials proved to be the most successful. The bone-in veal chop ($38) was probably the most favorably received thing our group sampled all evening. It was nearly fork tender, the way any decent slab of veal should be. Rich, cooked to perfection inside with a nicely charred exterior, it came out slathered in a rub of roasted, minced garlic and parsley that only added to the deep, savory flavors of the meat. It was paired with creamy mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus. We hope this special goes into regular rotation.
The pork osso bucco ($32) was another star of the evening. It was greeted at the table with many "oohs" and "ahhs," given its stunning presentation and generous proportions. The large pork shank sat on end, a towering spectacle that caught the attention of everyone at the table. The meat was slowly braised and came served in a rich demi-glace flavored with pork drippings.
The spaghetti chitarra ($18.75) has always been a popular dish at Vesuvio. It's a bit of a spectacle, honestly, but it never fails to impress. Hot pasta alongside portabello mushrooms are thrown in a large wheel of parmigiano reggiano (which is so large it must be wheeled around on a small cart), stirred around a bit until well coated, and plated. Its popularity has probably been fueled a bit more by its entertainment value than strictly by its flavor, but it's a solid pasta dish. We felt it lacked that biting saltiness you'd expect from a good parmigiano, but it was buttery and flavorful nonetheless.
Our dessert course began with a splendid cheesecake made with ricotta ($6.50). The ricotta imparted a creamy, light texture to the cheesecake — it was less dense than a more traditional version. A dollop of cloud-like whipped cream rested on top, making this the clear winner among desserts at our table. The tiramisu ($6.50) was also well received. It had a tempered sweetness, but was utterly delightful. We were less impressed with our molten lava cake ($6.50), which was too dry for our liking, despite the fact that it was filled with dark chocolate fudge.
Longtime fans of this legend among Little Rock Italian dining will not likely be disappointed with the changes at Vesuvio. For the most part, the menu is untouched, but a spacious new dining room and more comfortable accommodations for larger groups makes the change of space a wise move on the part of Vesuvio's owners. It's likely that Vesuvio will continue to thrive for years to come.
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