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Villa’s veal squeal-worthy

By Bobby Ampezzan

This article was published April 12, 2012 at 4:38 a.m.

If I tell you the Veal Roma at The Villa is the best in the city, don’t shoot me.

— “Try the veal. It’s the best in the city”

— Sollozzo

I don’t know what “good” veal is, do you? Have you ever had veal that got the better of a plain good steak?

That’s one reason this line from The Godfather left an impression on me. Sollozzo might have said “Try the biscotti” for all that.

Well, recently I tried the Veal Roma ($20) at The Villa out in west Little Rock, and it’s the best in the city. Young calf cutlets pounded tender and thoughtfully dressed in Italian breadcrumbs, then fried in oil, butter and lemon until the breading is blackened crisp around the edges. It arrives topped with a good mozzarella — try saying it moots-arella, I’ll wait — and covered partially in The Villa’s signature dark red marinara. Each bite is a potpourri of textures and sensations that hit at the sides and back of the mouth.

Madonna!

The Villa is one of the city’s oldest restaurants, although you wouldn’t know it to visit at its current Markham Street and Bowman Road location. It began as Gus and Mary Calabro’s place out on University Avenue when University was Hayes Street and the street was gravel. According to owners Marty Enderlin and Ken Shivey, who bought the cafe and its recipes off the Calabros some time ago, the service was slow and the beer wasn’t very cold, so you know what they were getting when they bought the place was the food.

Today, The Villa is not particularly charming. Its brick and glass facade blends seamlessly into the Mattress Firm Supercenter storefront to the east and Kid’s Furniture to the west. Inside, 8-by-10 glossies of the restaurant’s signature dishes are displayed in mottled plastic sleeves taped to a miniature boudoir dressing screen, a la Every Happy Chinese Restaurant. The tablecloths are plastic gingham and the chairs stackable, while all around, the walls bear a cutrate Mediterranean tableau in Tuscan yellows and cerulean blue that end ominously at a coal-black drop ceiling.

When I visited on a Tuesday night a bit late into the dinner rush — about 7 — the hundred or more diners filling the place didn’t seem to mind, and shortly, neither did I.

Beginning last week, The Villa once again offers what my server called its “Arkansas Pinwheel” ($7), a middle American turn on the insalato Caprese. This dinner-size salad is a thin bed of head lettuce topped with tomatoes sliced thin but wide, black and green olives, provolone cheese, red onions and cucumber, and drizzled conservatively with a tomato vinaigrette. It’s a pleasant arrangement to dig into and a nice salad for two.

I can see why The Villa is popular. There’s something of the corner cafe to it even if it’s no longer part of any neighborhood. The staff is notably pleasant and have been at their jobs longer than since-schoollet-out. While the menu is not great at every turn, it’s memorable.

For instance, the Garlic Breath Martini ($8): Absolut vodka, garlic pickle juice, one garlic-stuffed olive. The drink is a kind of peat bog green, and to my surprise, it tastes not like a garlicky martini but like kissing a garlic mouth. It tastes exactly as it’s branded. I won’t order it again, but what impish singularity!

The wine list, on the other hand, is populist to a fault, with labels like Mirassou and Ravenswood. They even have Riunite ($4.75 a glass). There are lots of respectable labels in there too, like Stag’s Leap out of Napa and Whitehaven in Marlborough, New Zealand.

On another night I tried the Veal ala Creme ($21.40), the Sausage Bake ($17.50) and the Shrimp Pomodoro ($23.30) and was less impressed.

Again the veal was terrific, but this dish was heavy on sweet onions that overpowered the veal, even the prosciutto. Sweet onions and cream is not an unpleasant flavor profile, and I would order this again.

The Sausage Bake was delicious but dry, a curious fact because this deep crock dish is leveled with Italian link and bulk sausage and two kinds of cheese.

The Shrimp Pomodoro cannot be forgiven for its frozen-thawed jumbo shrimp. Little Rockers don’t expect seafood fresh from the quay, but neither will we excuse a place for passing off a dish at $23.30 as if it is.

Similarly, the gnocchi appetizer ($8.70) isn’t any different from what you’d find in the refrigerated section of your local grocer. Our waitress said it’s popular, but gnocchi is like pancakes — advances in food technology have yet to give us a pre-cooked gnocchi or flapjack that’s worth the convenience.

The Portobello Mushroom Fries ($8) are great, and a unique take on the deep-fried mushroom. These long fingers look like potato wedges, but inside is a thick slice of steaming portobello, which is a chewier, richer comestible than the common button mushroom.

When Sollozzo recommends the veal at Louis’ Restaurant in the Bronx, it’s a big gesture. Here’s a guy, how shall we say?, uninclined to help his fellow man. He didn’t live to taste the veal himself. Baddaboom, badda bing! But I have. At The Villa, that is. It’s the best in the city.

And if, in the end, you’ve gone and eaten so much you’re considering a stick of gum for dessert, I got news for you here, too.

Leave the gum. Take the cannoli.

The Villa

Address: Rock Creek Square, 12111 W. Markham St. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday Cuisine: Italian Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D, DC Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: Large parties Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 219-2244

Weekend, Pages 31 on 04/12/2012

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