- The Couple's lasagna.
When the crowds are not shy
Of West 12th Street at night
When they’re pleased to consume
In a dark, simple room
Although it was only open for three years, from 1996 to 1999, the Italian Couple gained an unusual fame and affection among diners in Little Rock.
Perhaps it was the restaurant’s creation myth, which, depending on the telling, had something to do with the owners moving to Arkansas because they heard it was the “Land of Opportunity,” or because Bill Clinton is from here, or both. Maybe it is because the owners, Michael and Yuli Waters, are true Italians and conveyed an endearing authenticity through their broken English menu. Or possibly people were hoping that the enterprise could survive at its West 12th Street location, near Central High School.
Whatever the reason, the Italian Couple has retained its place in the hearts of many locals, judging from the crowd there on a recent Wednesday night. The place was packed when we arrived around 7 p.m., and we learned that a huge rush at 5 p.m., in advance of an Alltel Arena show, had cleaned out many of the restaurant’s signature desserts.
Like everyone else, we like the idea of the Italian Couple and we want it to do well. There is something appealing about its simple, no-frills aesthetic that suggests a typical urban Italian-American trattoria. And it feels good to patronize a place in that neighborhood. (Having shuttered seven years ago after a robbery, the restaurant now posts an off-duty police officer inside the dining area.)
But the food itself, although enjoyable, is not the best Italian fare in Little Rock — despite the street cred of its creators. It wouldn’t be necessary to point this out if the restaurant were less expensive (we love the cheap-chianti, red-and-white checkered tablecloth places), but the chianti ain’t cheap, and the prices vault the Italian Couple into a category out of proportion with the dining experience it offers.
The menu is weighted toward pasta dishes, with a choice of heavy sauces that are typical of the Tuscan region. There is also a selection of seafood pastas, with spaghetti or penne served with shrimp ($12.75), salmon ($12.75), mussels and clams ($12.43), crab ($13.57) or lobster ($13.57). One of the best dishes we tried was the lobster ravioli with seafood sauce ($15.85), because the lobster added a distinctive and flavorful taste.
This stood in contrast to the gnocchi quattro formaggi (four-cheese), a $13.50 special we chose because gnocchi — a potato dumpling pasta — is a personal favorite that’s hard to find. There was nothing wrong with it, but it wasn’t particularly tasty. The four cheeses seemed to drown each other out, creating a bland, thick sauce that should have been subtle, smoky and nutty.
Another companion had the veal scaloppini ($11.99), one of the meat and seafood offerings that also include steak, pork chops, chicken breast and several shrimp dishes. The veal was adequate, although an excessive amount of lemon juice adversely affected the pasta accompaniment.
Other little things suggest that the Italian Couple is overreaching with its prices. The salads that come with the entrees are cafeteria-style concoctions of iceberg lettuce with a heavily spiced vinaigrette. The bread probably comes from a Pillsbury tube. These are not big problems (we actually enjoyed the salad and the bread), but it’s not authentically Italian.
However, we were pleased with our starter, the antipasto di terra Toscano ($12.79), a large sampler of smoked meats — salami, mortadella, prosciutto, and liver pate — with slices of pecorino cheese and an assortment of olives. And the desserts that were left during our visit were great, especially the tartufo limoncello ($4.15), a creamy and delicious ball of vanilla- and lemon-flavored ice cream.
A real treat that should not be missed is Yuli’s homemade limoncello ($3.50), a post-meal sweet liqueur made from fresh lemons. This one is unusual because it is a “crema di limoncello,” which is thicker (yes, creamier) and as a result the edge of the alcohol taste is taken off.
Speaking of alcohol, we showed up at the Italian Couple with two bottles of wine, thinking that the restaurant did not have a license to sell it. We were wrong; they had just landed their liquor license. They now offer two chiantis and a pinot grigio, which run from $4.50 to $5 a glass and $20.50 to $26 a bottle.
All told, a full meal with wine and dessert at the Italian Couple is not a cheap night out, despite the appearances. We enjoyed ourselves and had a decent meal, and we felt good about supporting the place. Even though the food wasn’t everything we hoped for, we still have love for the Italian Couple. Amore isn’t always simple.
The Italian Couple
2618 W. 12th St.
Simple Northern Italian food in a no-frills setting. Mostly pasta dishes, with some meat and seafood. Good desserts.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tue.-Fri., and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Wine and beer served, including Italian beers.