- CAFE PREGO: Eating in this 1940s bungalow is like going to a neighborhood party.
Eating at Cafe Prego is like going to an enormous dinner party at someone's 1940s bungalow where they've removed all the usual furniture, brought in as many tables and chairs as they can fit in the living room, dining room and bedroom, and then crammed everyone into a tight, communal-feeling place.
You know everyone because it's a neighborhood party. Wine flows, the aroma of piping-hot food wafts throughout the place, and there's a pleasant din of competing conversations. Except this particular bungalow has walls papered in art museum posters, is teeming with movie star photos, even some George Fisher cartoons from the old Arkansas Gazette days, and the fireplace mantle is jammed with wine bottles. The atmosphere is "neighborhood haunt," but it's just as cozy for those who aren't from around here. Three friendly servers make sure everyone is well taken care of, and the pace is easy.
That was precisely the vibe in a pretty-well-packed Cafe Prego at 6:15 p.m. on a chilly Friday night in early February. And by 7 p.m. about 10 people were huddled in the small entryway waiting on a table.
We wish we could say we loved our meal as much as we liked the experience of dining at Prego. There were a couple of shining moments early, but then some mediocre dishes that followed. We started with a bowl of the soup of the day, butternut squash ($5) and really enjoyed it. It had not a hint of sweet; rather, it was savory — a bit salty (but not too) with some kick. We're not sure we could have identified it as butternut squash if not told, but it was good.
We shared a bottle of La Crema chardonnay, a bargain at $37. It paired nicely with the soup and with our appetizer — bruschetta ($8), which turned out to be the star of the meal. Bruschetta can be fairly mundane, boring even. Not these four pieces of lightly toasted baguette mounded with tomato, capers, sauteed onion, garlic, parmesan and a rich, sweet, luscious balsamic reduction. It's amazing the nearly two inches of ingredients didn't come tumbling down.
- VEAL PICCATA: The marinara was tasty, but the dish was overall a little bland.
We love spaghetti carbonara and had heard good things about Prego's tortellini-based version ($14.50). We did enjoy the way the mixture of ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan inside the pasta crescents added to the usual carbonara taste profile, but these tortellini were al dente to the max, way too chewy. There didn't seem to be quite enough sauce and pancetta (the menu says prosciutto, but it seemed like pancetta to us), though our dining companion didn't necessarily agree. There were plenty of mushrooms, and they added an earthy touch.
The veal piccata ($20) featured three small medallions of thin, lightly flour-coated, not-so-tender veal. There was a slight lemon zing to the sauce, but we could have used more. Capers were abundant, but even they didn't add a lot to this somewhat bland dish. We did appreciate the freshness of the not-cooked-to-death marinara that topped the accompanying mound of vermicelli.
We heard the couple next to us ask for a basket of rolls — they went through two baskets, actually — but we were offered no bread.
Why the chefs of the world have decided raspberry is always a great addition to chocolate we're not sure. Prego's chocolate creme brulee ($6) wasn't touted as having a raspberry syrup drizzle atop the from-the-can whipped cream topping. If we'd known we would have asked for it to be excluded; it got in the way of the chocolatey, creamy brulee that lurked under a crisp layer of hardened sugar. The tart, creamy lemon pie ($6) featured that same whipped cream (but no raspberry syrup, thankfully) and a standard graham cracker crust. It was fine, but certainly not transcendent.
5510 Kavanaugh Blvd.
If you're an early diner, or at least an early drinker, know that Prego has an appealing happy hour. From 5-6 p.m. every day of the week you can enjoy $4 glasses of house wine, $4 mixed drinks, $3 domestic beer and $2 off all the many specialty martinis.
5-9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards accepted, full bar.