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Bistro improves with move

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published August 29, 2013 at 3:22 a.m.

the-chefs-choice-antipasto-three-meats-three-cheeses-and-a-plate-of-assorted-olives-carries-a-pretty-high-price-tag

The Chef’s Choice Antipasto — three meats, three cheeses and a plate of assorted olives — carries a pretty high price tag.

Vesuvio Bistro

(By Eric E. Harrison)
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The move appears to be a good one. Vesuvio Bistro recently traveled a comparatively short distance - from a dimly lighted rathskeller in a west Little Rock hotel to a much more spacious building, with actual windows, at 1315 Breckenridge Drive, that once housed the now-defunct west Little Rock El Chico.

The new place seats twice as many, approximately 160, which is a big help on weekends, says co-owner Bill Criswell (the restaurant used to have to turn folks away).

The restaurant brought along almost intact its mostly Northern Italian menu. However, don’t let the word “bistro” fool you into thinking this is a good option for light wallets. The average entree price is $18, which includes some relatively low-priced pasta dishes; the “Secondi,” meat and fish dishes, will run you $18-$20. And high-priced appetizers and off-menu specials jacked up our tickets considerably.

The only surviving (or recognizably surviving) element of El Chico’s decor, the hacienda-style tiled floor in the entranceway, works just as well as a villa-style tiled floor. There’s a large and handsome bar area with a piano and a portrait of late founder and original chef Ozario R. “Rosario” Patti (also the founder of Belle Arti in Hot Springs) who died in 2009 at age 53. (Patti is also memorialized on the menu, via the Rigatoni Rosario, $15, ridged pasta tossed with mortadella and pancetta in a light tomato cream sauce.)

There are dining areas on each side of the entrance, with a third on the left side, all separated by half-high, ridged, black-topped, white-paneled dividers. A party room with a shut-able door is available for overflow seating. The sound system projects an odd musical mix, from classic rock to show tunes. Tables may bejust a bit too close if you’re not interested in eavesdropping on neighbors’ conversations.

We enjoyed our second visit to the new bistro much more than we did our first, which was marked by several disappointments:

Yes, we should have asked instead of assuming that the off-menu special Zuppa di Pesce was the same price as the $6.75 “zuppa del giorno.” It was $12. Our waiter specifically said “mussels” (plural), so we must be forgiven if we felt a bit cheated that the bowl arrived with only one (1) mussel amongst the fairly plentiful chunks of fish (but no other discernible shellfish) in the pleasantly spicy broth. It did come with a slice of garlic bread (with actual chunks of garlic, not just garlic butter).

The scallops in our grilled scallops over saffron risotto special were undercooked; the risotto was gummy and we not only didn’t taste saffron flavor, but anything much at all. And it cost us $28. Yes, we should have asked about that up front, too.

There was nothing wrong with our manicotti ($13.75) except that it proved that Vesuvio Bistro’s best successes are its Northern Italian offerings and not its red-sauce dishes. The pasta wrappers were close to al dente, but the ricotta filling and the house marinara needed a little more zip - they weren’t bland, but neither were they in any way exciting. (We observed that the section of the menu is labeled “Paste,” the Italian plural of “pasta,” but it looks like “paste.” Nice to have the chuckle, but …)

The tomato slices in the Caprese ($10.75) appetizer couldn’t have been any fresher if the chef had gone out the back and picked them.The medium-size mozzarella ball, cut into quarters, was nearly as fresh. It all came finished with fresh basil shreds, a little extra virgin olive oil and a light drizzle of very strong balsamic vinegar. We should have stuck with that - the extra helping of balsamic we requested (with the idea that one cannot have too much balsamic vinegar) turned out to be too much and too strong.

You could actually skip the appetizers - a busboy brings, unasked, a “bienvenuto” offering, a tangy tomato-onion bruschetta-topped baguette, one slice per diner. You also get a refillable basket of fresh bread with a ramekin of vibrant kalamata tapenade for spreading.

But if you are planning to indulge in an appetizer, we recommend the Polenta e Shiitake ($11.75), two large cakes of grilled polenta topped with not quite enough mushrooms in not quite enough of the otherwise pretty tasty sautee sauce.

And we decided to give in, throw caution (and money) to the winds and indulge in the charcuterie-style antipasto, described on a separate menu card as a choice of 2 (hand-sliced) ounces each of seven imported cheeses ($5-$7 per) and seven imported cured meats ($5-$7), plus four olive options ($3-$4).

Believe it or not, you’ll save money if you spend $30, the price of the top entree, for the Chef’s Choice. Parsing out the a la carte price of the three Salumi and three cheeses the chef chose, it was as though we got our small bowl of assorted green, black and red olives for “free.”

We got Mortadella con Pistaccio (we’re not usually big mortadella fans, but this came sliced thin enough to resemble prosciutto, which we love), Sopressata and a pepperoni-like Molinari Salametti. We also enjoyed the two fairly hard and sharp cheeses (Asiago Pressato from the Veneto region and Pecorino Pepato, made with sheep’s milk with embedded peppercorns) and the spreadable, semi-soft, previously unfamiliar but very pleasant Talleggio.

The pink sauce on the Vitello Sorrentino ($24.75), a veal medallion sauteed with a layer of eggplant, topped with prosciutto, mozzarella and shiitake mushrooms, was just a little sharp, but otherwise we enjoyed the dish. Not so much the vegetable side, essentially a glorified squash and zucchini medley dressed up with a few carrots, onions and haricot vert. Meh.

We went off-menu again for the delightful Pesto Gnocchi ($15.75). The small potato-flour dumplings were nicely chewy and, unlike too many places that do namby pamby pesto cream sauces, this pesto was rich, full-bodied and rife with basil, garlic and grated parmesan flavors.

Service, though not bad on our first visit, was also better on our second. We got a little more attention when we needed it and felt better cared for.

Vesuvio Bistro’s wine list has expanded with the new territory. By-the-glass prices range from average to a bit above that. The $2 bottle of prosecco, however, turned out to be a disappointing misprint.

Vesuvio Bistro

Address: 1315 Breckenridge Drive, Little Rock Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.

Friday-Saturday Cuisine: Italian Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: Yes Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 225-0580 vesuviobistro.com

Weekend, Pages 31 on 08/29/2013

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