REAL ITALIAN: At Ermilio's.
There are two ways to think about Ermilio’s winning the Arkansas Times readers’ award for best restaurant in Eureka Springs. On the one hand, it’s an impressive honor, considering that the charming mountain resort town has a disproportionate number of great places to eat. On the other hand, it seems an inadequate way to recognize what is easily one of the best restaurants in the state.
Ermilio’s, currently in its 14th season, gets everything right, starting with the food. It is an Italian restaurant that walks the perfect line between authentic native cuisine and its American incarnation.
What does that mean? Well, most of us are used to the kind of Italian food that was adapted by immigrants from Southern Italy when they arrived in New York City. Big plates of pasta, with either hearty tomato sauces or thick cheese sauces, breaded chicken and veal cutlets with melted cheese, and big cheesy pizzas with thick, doughy crusts. It’s home-style cooking, and you wash it down with cheap Chianti, never worrying about the mess you’re making on the red-and-white checkered tablecloth.
More recently, Americans have been introduced to the kind of food that is actually consumed in most parts of Italy. Over there, pasta is only eaten in small quantities as a primi piato (first course), not as a meal itself, and it is usually preceded by small antipasti (appetizers), like bruschetta and prosciutto e melone (pieces of cantaloupe wrapped in thinly-sliced ham). A nice piece of fish or meat, simply prepared and without a side dish, then constitutes the main course.
It’s always a great meal, especially if you are fortunate enough to eat it in Italy, but here in the U.S., it is considered gourmet, and often accompanied by white tablecloths, formal settings, and high prices.
Somehow, Ermilio’s combines the best of both worlds: a relaxed atmosphere, excellent food, and the right combination of Italian and Italian-American cuisine.
The wine list clues you in. It’s simple and unpretentious (less than 10 bottles), offering roughly two moderately-priced selections in each category. The most expensive choice is a bottle of reserve Chianti that comes in under $35, and it is worth every penny.
You can choose to drink your wine with the fresh-baked bread that arrives warm at your table, accompanied by soft, sautéed cloves of garlic. Or, you can sample some of the appetizers, which range from native Italian – like the insalata caprese ($6), consisting of sliced tomato, bufalo mozzarella cheese, and basil leaves – to a more Italian-American style of stuffed mushrooms ($6).
The entrees show the same range. An entire page of the menu is devoted to pasta ($9-$13), but diners must create their own dish from a selection of shapes and sauces. You could have a familiar combination, like spaghetti with marinara, or a more adventurous dish, like gnocchi (potato dumplings) with a gorgonzola cheese sauce. And if you are not in the mood for pasta, Ermilio’s has grilled fish and chicken, and even a filet, all served with side dishes. The standout, however, may be the shrimp scampi ($18), with large pieces of shrimp, delicately seasoned and sautéed, served over a bed of linguini.
Still, if Ermilio’s is a favorite restaurant for so many people, it isn’t just because of the food. It manages to be both casual and elegant, occupying an old house on a residential street in Eureka Springs. They don’t take reservations, and there is usually a wait for a table. But that is just as well, because after you put your name on the list, you can proceed upstairs for a glass of wine at the cozy bar, or you can take your drink outside and sip it on the wrap-around porch, watching horse-drawn carriages go by.
Inside, the chairs and furniture don’t match, but that adds to the charm. It’s both romantic enough for a date, and relaxed enough for a family meal. T-shirt and jeans or cocktail dress. You get the idea.
The service is remarkably good, with knowledgeable and experienced waiters who know when to check in and when to leave you alone. You won’t be rushed, but you can get a quick meal if necessary.
Of course, without Eureka Springs, Ermilio’s wouldn’t be Ermilio’s. It’s a laid-back, funky town, and you can’t help but be in a good mood by the time you arrive at the restaurant. Even so, a visit to Ermilio’s by itself justifies any trip to Eureka Springs. Both the restaurant and the city are one-of-a-kind places, and they rightfully deserve to be counted among the Best of Arkansas.