Monday, November 26, 2007

No Cans Here, Facci's Is The Real Thing.

This restaurant has closed.

If you like the same Italian food time after time after time, go to Olive Garden. If you want the real deal, made with love and made from scratch, hit the road and head to Facci's.

The longtime Hot Springs eatery was a mainstay for years on the main strip across from Oaklawn. But on November 15th, 1999, the old restaurant went up in flames. And for a few years, the town missed its flavorful marinara and thick alfredo.

It opened again in an old Greek restaurant in the Park Hotel, squeezed into a tinier space than it occupied before.

But Facci's couldn't stay away from Oaklawn, and a few years ago it moved into the building that had stood next to the old restaurant, a tiny house with a few cramped tables.

Today, Mr. Strafaci's restaurant still looks over longingly at the fountain and entryway that still stand on the site of the old store, the only remnants of the renovations that had just been completed when the building burned. But Hot Springs natives and visitors aren't missing that unique Italian food.

The new location is under renovations, too. A new vestibule is being built out front, and once it's done there will be more room for eclectic decor and intimate tables inside.

The food? The menu has mostly remained intact, though the taste might vary a bit from day to day. Sometimes there's a little more oregano in the sauce; sometimes more tomato. But it's always good.

I visited the restaurant with friends on a chilly Friday in November, and was pleased to find a table to seat four. It still feels like home inside, with decor that says just as much about Arkansas as it does about Italy.

We each ordered dinners. I chose a dinner salad with the house vinaigrette to go along with my Gnocchi Alfredo. Before the salad, our waiter brought us big drinks and a round of hot foccacia bread with dipping oil and pepper. Sorry, there's no picture of that -- it went quick. My salad was full of croutons and black olives and cherry tomatoes, and the dressing was spicy.

One of the gentlemen with me ordered a tomato basil soup -- another, the minestrone. The tomato basil soup was creamy, rich, and served almost too warm. The minestrone was on the spicy side. We were brought more bread -- crusty Italian bread that was toasted with lots of garlic and olive oil. Don't have a picture of that, either -- we ate that quickly, too.

Not long after, out came our dishes -- and boy, what a nice sampling we shared. One of my tablemates chose the Fettuccini Alfredo Carbonara -- a big plate full of firm yet squishy noodles and chunks of crispy bacon, liberally doused with black pepper. The bacon was apparently added at the last moment to take advantage of the crunch.

Another chose the Spaghetti Bolognase -- a huge pile of noodles with a more than ample dose of meat sauce. The big lumps of beef nestled comfortably amidst the big chunks of tomato. No doubting the validity of the meat in the sauce, that's for sure.

The third chose the cheese ravioli -- big, hand rolled cheese filled pastry pillows smothered in marinara. The ravioli and many other items on the dinner menu come with two dense meatballs, big baseball sized spheres full of spices and meat. Not a whole lot of fillers here.

But for me, it was all about the Gnocchi Alfredo. There isn't another place in Arkansas where I can get big, homemade gnocchi in a rich, creamy sauce. The first bite had the consistancy of a chocolate truffle with the mouthfeel and taste of hand whipped creamy mashed potatoes. Peppered and lightly salted, this is Italian comfort food at its finest. Oh, and if you don't want the Alfredo sauce, you can have the gnocchi with marinara or pesto sauce instead.

In fact, there are a lot more choices to consider at Facci's. One of my usual favorites is the Veal Scaloppini, thin sliced meat that dissolves in the mouth. My husband loves the Chicken Piccata, with its bright lemony goodness. There are also great sandwiches, hand-cut fried cheese sticks, and the best toasted ravioli you'll find for 200 miles.

And at lunch, there's a great special where you can eat as much spaghetti as you like for one low, set price.

The building that once housed Facci's, also held a wealth of treasures, including great signed photographs of Rat Pack greats, gorgeous fountains, and beautiful paintings. I remember the inner sanctum of wooden sided booths in the original restaurant -- you'd duck inside and be in your own special area of the world. I loved the dim lighting, the Chianti bottles lined up near the ceiling, and the sound of a football game playing in the kitchen. The rest of the restaurant had been built up around that sanctum, but we always found our seat inside. It was in the booth on the north side of that room that my husband and I sat and enjoyed our very first restaurant meal of married life on November 14, 1999, one day after our wedding and one day before the fire. When I found out it had burned, I mourned.

No need to mourn any more. Facci's is back, and will remain a staple of the Hot Springs food scene. You'll find it at 2900 Central Avenue, just down and across the street from Oaklawn's main entrance. You can also call (501) 623-9049 or check out the restaurant's website.

printed in the December 2007 issue of the Little Rock Free Press

I went back to check it out again in January 2010. This article had been printed out and posted on the door.

1 comment:

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