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Vino’s, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in September, looks, tastes, feels, sounds and smells just like it did in 1990. Well, the smell of malt barley and hops cooking on their way to becoming beer is a smell that’s only been around 22 of those 25 years, but you get the point. Never wavering from its original mission has been key to Vino’s enduring success.
Vino’s does pizza, calzones, sandwiches and salads — always has and probably always will. Owner Henry Lee has resisted the urge to diversify — to add a plate of spaghetti and meatballs or open a Vino’s on Chenal Parkway, for example — dedicating his team to doing a few things well.
Live music is a backbone of the Vino’s formula. (We assume everybody knows by now that Green Day played there a couple of times and made friends with two Little Rock rockers — Jason White and Jeff Matika — who play guitar in Green Day’s touring band.) Lee told us once that being an all-ages music venue means he’s seen lots of teen customers who buy one soft drink and camp out at a table all night. But those same teens stay fiercely loyal to Vino’s after they turn 21. Thousands have taken that rite of Vino’s passage over the decades. Lee must get a kick out of the recent, rapidly ratcheting up of the local beer scene. He put up the money to launch Little Rock’s first brewpub brewery in 1993. And for years Vino’s was it for breweries. Then River Rock Brewery (later Bosco’s and now Damgoode Pies) opened in 1997. Next came Diamond Bear in 2000 — and today those trailblazers have been joined by a handful more with others on the way.
Local beer aficionados may not tout Vino’s beers as the city’s best, but we’ve always found them tasty and consistent. In the name of research and continuing education, we started a recent lunch with a Vino’s beer sampler (seven pours for $6). We regularly enjoy the Firehouse Pale and the Pinnacle IPA when at Vino’s, but it had been a while since we’d tried the Lazy Boy Stout, which we found smooth-smoky-roasted, or the Six Bridges Cream Ale, a light-yet-rich brew. The three guest beers in our flight were oatmeal stout, oatmeal brown and marzen. Thumbs up to the first two, thumbs down to the last, just because that’s a malty beer style we’ve never enjoyed.
By the time we had made our way through the beer samples, out came our table-straining array of food choices: muffaletta bread ($5.15), sausage and mushroom calzone ($7.95), whole meatball and cheese sub ($5.70 with a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips) and a large Vino’s Special pizza ($19.25). As we surveyed the spread we realized the only thing green on our table were the bell peppers and olives, though a foursome that starts with a beer sampler clearly isn’t focused on healthy eating.
As dedicated restaurant reviewers, we had attempted to get a wide variety of menu items — starter, sandwich, calzone and pizza — but we soon realized all were more similar than different, inextricably linked by the themes of meat, cheese, bread and marinara. But that’s not a bad thing, at least not at Vino’s. One of our companions, a longtime New Orleans resident, literally couldn’t keep her hands off the muffaletta bread. Vino’s takes the cheese, meat and olive salad that are hallmarks of the classic sandwich, cuts them into smaller pieces and serves the blended assortment on really crispy bread, and our companion thought it was wonderful.
We realized that over decades of trips to Vino’s we’d never had a sandwich. But we adored the meatball sub — large, dense, flavorful, firm meatballs with plenty of rich, dark, tangy marinara and a thick layer of cheese, served on the same toasted bread that was cut up for our starter.
Pizza is a very subjective food — “best in town” status is based on the style a person favors. Our true-blue thin crust companion raved about the Vino’s Special, which features a crispy (though not that thin) bottom crust with still a bit of chewiness and a mozzarella blanket holding plenty of top-quality toppings: Italian sausage, pepperoni, meatballs, mushrooms, onions, black and green olives, green peppers and extra cheese.
What we don’t get often enough, we were reminded, is a Vino’s calzone. We’ve never heard anyone disparage this football-sized gooey delight, and many proclaim it equal to or better than the best they’ve had in New York — or anywhere else. The combination of mozzarella and ricotta — packed into the light, tender crust in great quantity — works well. Have it straight up, or pick any ingredients that please you, and you can’t go wrong.
Though a couple of our items included marinara, an armada of marinara-filled sauce boats accompanied our order for any and all manner of dipping. Rarely have we finished writing a review more ready to return to scarf down the food about which we just opined — but in less than an hour we’ll be back at Vino’s, just two of us this time, for muffaletta bread, a calzone and a couple of Firehouse Pales.
With spring having sprung, don’t forget that Vino’s has a cool, tucked away patio. Head out the back of the room where the brewing is done, past the huge sacks of beer ingredients and grab a table.
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