- MANGIA: Michelangelo's Penne Toscano features grilled chicken and shrimp in a cream sauce.
Undoubtedly, there is a contingent in Conway that sees the growing number of private club liquor licenses in restaurants in dry Faulkner County as further proof that we're sliding towards Gomorrah. But for the rest of us who live or have occasion to visit Arkansas's seventh largest city — woo hoo! Now, not only can we have a taste with dinner, we have options.
The latest alternative comes courtesy of Mike Coats and Mike Kraft, who in 2004 opened Mike's Place, the first restaurant in Conway to get an alcohol permit and the best restaurant in Arkansas outside of Pulaski County as recently determined by the Times' readers. For Michelangelo's Italian Ristorante, the restaurateurs borrowed the basic formula they established at Mike's Place — unpretentious, quality food; a relaxed atmosphere that lends itself to loafers just as easily as sneakers; a voluminous, but still relatively intimate space that can accommodate hundreds at a time and, yeah, the booze.
For all the similarities, it's clear that Coats and Kraft see Michelangelo's as the more urbane of the two. Situated in the beautifully restored Halter building, a nearly 100-year-old structure on the corner of Oak and Front streets (just a hop away from the Toad Suck Circle), the restaurant marries the traditional with tasteful modern accoutrements. Trendy, curved awnings mute the lights that line the building's exterior. The sweeping entryway, which extends one way to a long open kitchen and another to an elegant, thick-granite-topped bar, is floored in bright white hexagonal tile. Lest those don't register, a player piano — a signifier for class if there ever was one — plinks along in the atrium. But for all the initial good impressions, the white- table-clothed dining area is demarcated by a kind of industrial black and grey carpet usually found in libraries and rec centers.
It's hard, however, to find fault with the menu, geared obviously to reach the broadest audience possible, with some 40 entrees divided among pizza, pasta, chicken, fish and red meat, along with a number of antipasti and salad options. On the back of the broadsheet, the wine list compares favorably to most Little Rock eateries, though the prices might be a few dollars higher (Coats and Kraft surely guess right that thirsty Conwayers will gladly pay the extra couple of bucks).
Our party started with the mozzarella sticks and the calamari and found each satisfying. Caesar and mixed salads followed. The Caesar came drenched in dressing — one in our group endorsed the soaking, while another found it overpowering. The greens in the mixed salad were fresh and topped with a tangy, garlic-lemon vinaigrette.
For an entree, we sampled the Linguini con Frutti di Mare, an appealing mixture of shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams tossed together in a mildly spicy marinara. We'd order it any day. Our companions tried the lasagna and the arrabbiata with chicken added. The lasagna was dense and delicious, while the arrabbiata delivered its customary kick.
Michelangelo's makes all its desserts in-house, except for the sorbet. We tried the decadent chocolate cheesecake and a rich piece of custard pie with layers of apple and a caramel topping.
Michelangelo's wait staff works platoon-style, with a point person taking your order, a server delivering your meal and a roving, solicitous manager. Our food came quick and as we ordered it. Requests to alter menu items were met without hesitation. There were, however, still a few opening-month kinks. Drinks were refilled intermittently and we had to ask for bread — a tasty loaf of focaccia — three times before it was delivered.
Those minor quibbles aside, our experience at Michelangelo's was wholly pleasing, and we eagerly await the next concept from Coats and Kraft. We hope they'll stick with derivations of “Michael” — Michel's French Bistro, Miguel's Mexican Cantina, Mikhal's Russian Cuisine. The options are endless.
Michelangelo's Italian Ristorante
1117 Oak St., Conway
Arguably the best restaurant in Conway, the Italian eatery offers a massive menu and booze to boot. You can't go wrong with standards like lasagna and arrabbiata. Plus, there's pizza and steak and such if traditional Italian doesn't fit your craving. Even in such a voluminous space, expect waits on the weekends.
11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Most entrees run $13-$15. All major credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Bar for waits. Reservations accepted for parties of seven or more Sunday night to Friday lunch. Otherwise, call-ahead seating only.