One of Little Rock's very best restaurants is in one of the most unlikely spots. Vesuvio Bistro serves high-end Italian food in a dimly lit, nicer-than-you'd-expect dining room inside the Best Western Governor's Inn, a patently nondescript hotel in a patently nondescript, somewhat tucked-away section of west Little Rock.
Business travelers and families passing through town must wonder what's up with the locals who stream in for a collection of soups, salads, pastas and main dishes that consistently proves Vesuvio is arguably the best Italian restaurant in town. Because the hotel serves one of those in-lobby breakfast buffets that straddles the continental/full-breakfast line, and there is no lunch service, it's doubtful many guests find their way into Vesuvio. But those who do must be pleasantly shocked with what they encounter, assuming they're up for a higher-end meal.
Prices at Vesuvio are pretty high, particularly for starters. Soups are $6.75, and salads are $8 to $10.75. The main courses are more comparable to nicer places around town. Pasta dishes are $13.75 for basics like cannelloni, manicotti and lasagna, with tortellini $15.75 and linguini with shrimp $18.75. Fish, pork and veal main courses are $21 to $30. But the restaurant definitely justifies its prices with wonderful food, professional service and an altogether pleasant dining experience, even if you encounter kids in their bathing suits in the lobby.
We began our latest Vesuvio meal with zuppa del giorno (soup of the day), which this night was fabulous — broth-based, flavored with parmesan rind, with mirepoix (the carrot/onion/celery blend that is the Holy Trinity of Italian cooking) at its core, dotted with mushrooms and white beans, a touch of saffron providing a bright kick.
Polenta e shitake, sauteed shitake mushrooms over grilled polenta, at first blush seemed overpriced at $11.75. But it was worth it, basically perfect. If, when you hear "polenta," thick, wet, congealed cornmeal paste comes to mind, this version will forever replace that idea in your mind. It is light yet rich, a crisp cake that is buttery and crunchy; the shitakes had just the right saltiness, likely thanks to the reduction sauce in which they were sauteed.
Our minds were made up on entrees before our waiter — a consummate pro who's a veteran of the local fine-dining scene — started his spiel on the daily specials. The words "shrimp" and "asparagus" teamed with "rotini," "olive oil" and "parmesan" prompted a change of heart/stomach, and the large bowl was filled with a solid representation of all the dish could be — simple, well prepared and hearty.
However, it didn't, nor couldn't, have the flair of our other entree — vitello sorrentino ($24.75), an Italian classic. Veal scaloppini is the base of this layered dish, which includes battered-and-fried eggplant, prosciutto, shitakes and mozzarella, with just enough delicate, creamy pink sauce ladled on top. The menu called the veal a "medallion," and this one was larger than any we've ever seen draped around Mr. T's neck. The dish was one of those whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts experiences, the flavors melding perfectly.
Vesuvio's wine list is understandably primarily Italian, and a glass of Antinori chianti teamed well with the veal. We also discovered Bearboat, a reasonably priced chardonnay from the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, a delightful, well-balanced, reasonably priced selection.
Satisfying earlier visits weren't the only reason we returned to Vesuvio Bistro this night. We wanted to be sure this too-well-kept-secret was still among the city's best restaurants. Tuesday, Aug. 3, marked the one-year anniversary of the unexpected death of 53-year-old Rosario Patti, the chef and founder of the restaurant. Most Arkansas foodies have known about Patti since he opened Belle Arti in Hot Springs, which he later sold.
We now know both Belle Arti and Vesuvio are carrying on quite well after Patti's departures, which clearly occurred under very different circumstances.
1501 Merrill Drive
If you, like we, think of thick, wet, congealed cornmeal paste when you hear the word "polenta," try Vesuvio's version, topped with succulent sauteed shitakes. This polenta is light yet rich, with a nice crunch. Not an inexpensive experiment at $11.75, but worth it.
5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Expensive.