Arkansawyers tend to make pilgrimages to the dining places they love. Generations of football fans heading from Little Rock to Fayetteville have stopped at Feltner's Whatta-Burger in Russellville. Epicurean fans of soul food have to stop in at Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village. And on Razorback home game weekends, you can't even get into the parking lot at The Venesian Inn in Tontitown.
The little beige building by the road in Tontitown has changed little since opening day on June 28, 1947. How do I know that date? It’s posted on the flyer on the wall inside the little place, complete with these lines:
Where you will find up-to-date cabins.The cabins and filling station are long gone, but today, you can still go in and sit at the wooden tables installed by Germano Gasparotto that have remained there since the place opened. You can still have your fried chicken and spaghetti, and you’re still going to get far more spaghetti than you can reasonably eat in one sitting. The sauce is spicy and packed with beef, the meatballs are baseball sized and the waitresses will still bring out those slightly sweet rolls with real butter for you to enjoy with your repast.
Excellent meals consisting of Italian spaghetti, ravioli and fried chicken.
Private and semi-private dining rooms
Also filling station with Phillips 66 products
Gasparotto, a native Italian, ran the place a few years before handing it off to more native Italians—John and Mary Granata. They ended up passing it down to their daughter Alice Leatherman, who customers still remember as being a prankster. In 1992, she in turn gave it over to her nephew, Johnny Mhoon, and his wife, Linda. Today, she runs it with her daughter, Monica Gipson.
The Mhoons, like those who preceded them, are dedicated to continuing the made-from-scratch dishes that sparked the location’s popularity. Of course, this means a lot of the shortcuts other Italian restaurants take don’t exist, and that might make for a longer wait. But people don’t seem to mind. They keep coming back, generation after generation.
The Venesian Inn doesn’t serve alcohol, but it does allow you to bring in your own bottle of wine, a nice touch for those who want it. And if you’re a guy, you should know that the men’s room is actually across the parking lot.
I have come to find myself at The Venesian Inn many times, usually on a hankering. I know the service and the food are going to be steady -- it's just the way things are.
When you sit down and your waitress takes your order, you will find a number of items on your table -- honey in a bottle, saltine crackers in a bowl, individual pats of margarine, sugar, Heinz 57 Sauce, salt and pepper.
Once you've ordered, you'll be brought pliant trefoil-style rolls and a soaked salad of lettuce with the house dressing, which is a blend of spices and vinegar and oil. This salad can be addictive.
And then comes the food. The Venesian Inn is the last of the original purveyors of the traditional fried-chicken-and-spaghetti pairing that demarcates Tontitown's location on the culinary map. Later shops like Mama Z's down the street carry on the tradition, and you'll find the duet played out at AQ Chicken House in nearby Springdale, but this is the original and it is the best.
On my most recent visit, I found myself sitting for a very late 4:30 p.m. lunch. I inhaled that plate of salad within moments of its arrival at the table, and I was halfway through the chicken thigh on the #1 (three pieces of fried chicken and spaghetti with meatsauce) before I could slow down enough to indicate to my waitress that I could use some more iced tea. This isn't high-falutin' white tablecloth cuisine; you don't go to The Venesian Inn and expect to leave with your shirt and fingers clean.
The meatballs deserve their own sitcom -- they're robust without being too heavy, and they're so dang good you can order them separately for $1.50 apiece. The ravioli is almost large enough to use as a child's blanket -- well, maybe not that large, but a good two and a half to three inches wide. I hear rumors of calamari but I never get there.
Now, I know there are some of you out there who believe you may have heard hype about this particular restaurant. But it is splendid. Ask Rex. Or Marcus. Or Meredith. Or Kim. Or Hayley. I could go at listing links to other stories about The Venesian Inn all day, or I could just direct you to the brand spankin' new website they have up. It's a dandy.
So go, if you haven't been. Take a cooler if you want to take some home, which you probably will. Enjoy it. Smile at your waitress and tip her well. And remember what's kept this restaurant alive for more than 60 years -- family, friends and some damn fine food.
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