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Vesuvio Bistro made a move from the tiny dungeon-like space at the Best Western Governors Inn to the one-time home of El Chico on Breckenridge Drive a while back, and from all indications the move was perfect for one of Central Arkansas's consistently good Italian restaurants.
Vesuvio's former dining room accommodated 70 diners who may have felt like they were dining on top of their neighbors. Vesuvio can now seat 180, with one section cordoned off with a windowed door for private dining. Smack dab in the middle of the main dining area is a baby grand piano, which on busier nights is manned by a regular player. The bar at the back end of this main dining room is spectacular, well-lit and packed with every bottle imaginable.
Which is to say, you can sample any of 10 specialty martini drinks, or order a bottle of Italian wine, but it doesn't have to stop there. A couple of Vesuvio regulars that joined us on a recent visit always start off their meals with made-from-scratch margaritas. El Chico may be long gone — only the shape of the now dark-red building might give away its former occupant — but sometimes you just have to start off a meal of Northern and Southern Italian cuisine with a new world drink. Vesuvio's ownership (and hence, the old family recipes and cooking style) traces its roots back to the original Bella Arti in Hot Springs (and also at Pavilion in the Park) and Pompeii, two of our Spa City favorites over the past 20 years. One of our friends counts on the manicotti nearly every time he dines here, knowing he will get pasta pillows oozing of a silky ricotta and covered in a tomato sauce that is Vesuvio's own.
While our friends enjoyed their margaritas ($9), we had the bartender whip up a Manhattan martini ($10.50), the rye and vermouth complemented by a large orange peel sliver. We've never much been into martinis but were willing to give this a try, and it succeeded in converting us.
While we chose the simple mixed spring greens salad off the menu, the insalada tricolore, three others smartly went with the two off-the-menu special salads ($11.75) that were out of this world (at least we got to try a bite of them). One, a spinach and pear salad with goat cheese and a vinaigrette, was a large and perfect starter salad, and one we're sure to try again. But don't discount the other off-the-menu option, the Zorba, which naturally is Vesuvio's version of a Greek salad with all the usual ingredients making a splendid combination.
Vesuvio's regular tradition for starting a meal is to offer bread and a black olive relish, and our expert waiter kept that and everything else replenished.
Another "only at Vesuvio" special that we can count on is the Spaghetti Chitarra ($19.95), which is noodles and shiitake mushrooms tossed and then finished inside a Parmesan wheel, creating a stunningly rich, creamy and filling plate of Italian goodness.
We also tried the Tilapia Picatta ($21.75), a lemon-and-capers take on the veal or chicken dish found in other restaurants. The fish was lightly breaded and pan-seared so as to not overwhelm the taste, and it hit all marks for greatness.
But the clear standout this night, also a special and not a regular menu item, was the veal with grilled shrimp on a bed of mashed potatoes and fresh asparagus ($32). The veal was hammered thin to exquisite tenderness, and a flavorful light gravy accompanied it.
Typically we might pass on dessert after all that food, but not at Vesuvio, which offered choices galore and nearly all of them made in-house — from the usual Italian pastries to sorbet. We chose three ($6.50 each): a raspberry sorbet, a New York cheesecake and the cannoli.
None disappointed, but the first two did not reach the heavenly level of the cannoli, which reminded us of a true New York cannoli from the ever-shrinking Little Italy. The sweet, cheesy filling of mascarpone and ricotta was dotted with chocolate chips, the pipe shell was crusty and fresh and easy handled by hand (without crumpling) and each end was graced with a maraschino cherry.
When you go all out with cocktails, a bottle of wine (the restaurant has several monthly specials, including the 667 Pinot Noir we ordered for $30), salads, entrees and desserts, Vesuvio's can be an expensive night out. And for that price, you expect to have enjoyed a wonderful experience, to be well served, to enjoy every bite, and to hope the day comes soon that you can afford to return. Vesuvio's left us feeling that way, and then some.
1315 Breckenridge Drive
Vesuvio will accommodate any tastes and any portions with its "create your own" antipasti menu of up to seven cheeses, seven types of salami and four styles of olives, or you can trust the kitchen with the Chef's Choice plate ($30). Vesuvio offers takeout of its antipasti dishes as well, a good call during the holiday rush.
5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Full bar. Credit cards accepted.