LITTLE ROCK If you found yourself with a hankering for a good Italian meal, you probably wouldn’t head into Conway and look around for a restaurant smack dab in the middle of a host of hotels and chain restaurants, and a Goodwill store, all of which are less than a block from Interstate 40. But that’s just what my mother and I did a few Saturday’s ago, and we were pleasantly surprised at what we found.
Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, which opened in May, sits in such a location, but from looking at the building, we knew the place could hold something special. The exterior of the stand-alone building is taste-ful, with earth-tone wood and brick accents, large windows and plenty of parking.
Upon entering, a helpful young lady seated us after we finally decided where in the almost empty room we wanted to sit. It was not yet noon, so we really didn’t figure the place would be packed.
Once we were seated, our server, Andrew, handed us menus and took our drink orders. He also brought a basket of thin bread that had been baked and topped with herbs and possibly a brush of butter. It was delicious.
Since this was going to be our only visit for a while, Mom and I decided to try a variety of dishes. First we ordered a Harlem Beet Salad ($8.95), then Shrimp Florentine ($16.95) and the Proscuitto & Fig Bruschetta ($10.95). As you can see, this is no cheap eat, but a flavorful splurge now and then can be a good thing.
Andrew brought out the beet salad first, so we dug in and looked around the dining area. It’s really a lovely space.
The dark wood and brick theme is continued from the outside in a really attractive way. The dining tables are covered in black cloths and the napkins match. The chairs are a light wood that goes well with the black and earth-tone accents. There are several taller tables in the middle of the room set for larger parties, and honestly,it seems like Russo’s would be a great place to meet friends or family members to enjoy an intimate meal.
Diners can also watch the chef at work using the coalfired oven behind a counter that spans a lot of the restaurant’s back wall. Outside on the left of the building is a cozy-looking patio area that probably hops when the weather is warmer.
But back to the salad.
The menu says it’s made with coal-fired roasted beets, gorgonzola, romaine lettuce, cucumbers, kalamata olives, roma tomatoes, glazed pistachios and a pomegranate dressing. The beets weretender and earthy tasting, and the rest of the ingredients meshed into a very flavorful salad. But, I did find myself fishing out all the tasty little pistachios I could find.
Next came the Prosciutto & Fig Bruschetta, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was basically an ovalshaped coal-fired crust that was sliced into rectangular pieces, and each small piece was topped with a smear of Mediterranean fig, thin slices of prosciutto topped with parmigiano reggiano cheese.The fig, which was sweet and flavorful, overpowered the other toppings a little bit, but overall, the sweet and savory went well together.
Lastly we dug into the Shrimp Florentine. Andrew really listened when we said we were splitting the order, so he brought it out in two bowls.
I was impressed with the service. It’s one of those places where they remember your order instead of writing it down in front of you. And Andrew got it all right.
The Shrimp Florentine is large shrimp, mushrooms, organic spinach, tomatoes and a lemon garlic wine sauce over spinach pasta. The pasta, which I was told is not made in-house, tasted really fresh and the texture was so much lighter than the sometimes rubbery pasta you find elsewhere. There were six shrimp, so mom and I got three apiece, and the light lemon garlic wine sauce had a nice tangy kick that pulled the dish together quite nicely.
I ordered a Pizza Napoletana to take home for dinner, and went with the version they call the Soho. For $14.95 you get three toppings on a square oven-baked crust, and I’ll say their choices are interesting. Along with the usual toppings, they offer things like ricotta cheese, eggplant, egg, kalamata olives, organic arugula and spinach, and salami.
Since we were way too full for dessert, I got two Italian Cannolis ($3.95 each) to eat with the pizza I planned to share with my son.
The pizza was nothing sensational, but it was not flavorless either. It didn’t reheat as well as I had hoped. The crust just never got as crisp as we like it after a turn in the oven, and the toppings were a bit sparse.
But the cannolis were delicious. The tube-like shells were crisp, and the sweet ricotta filling had chocolate chips mixed in.
I did a little Internet sleuthing and found out that Russo’s is an offshoot of a New York Pizzeria concept created by Anthony Russo, who opened Anthony’s Pizzeria in Clear Lake, Texas, back in 1992. Now it’s a franchise with more than 25 locations. In 2008, the Russo’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria concept came about, and a few years later, the Conway location was born.
As for the menu, it offers a great selection of pastas, soups, pizzas, house and seafood specialties, and desserts. On Saturdays and Sundays, they serve brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen
Address: 2490 Sanders St.,
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Monday through Thursday,
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday,
10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Satur
day and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Cuisine: Pizza, pasta and
Credit cards: AE, D, V, MC
Alcoholic beverages: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
(501) 205-8369 RussoRes
Weekend, Pages 33 on 01/31/2013
Print Headline: Italian Kitchen tastily authentic