U.S. Highway 65 runs from Clayton, LA through the Mississippi River Delta all the way up to Little Rock, AR, across Missouri and Iowa up to Albert Lea, MN. The highway used to be a long meandering path from Conway, AR to Springfield, MO - two lanes of twists, turns, inclines and declines spanning half a state. On its curves it held rock shops, quilt stores, smokehouses, fruit stands and every sort of roadside attraction. There were places to stop to view grand vistas, little quaint towns with old manned service stations, bluffs and waterfalls along roadsides and cute country-clad motels. Over the years the kinks have been knocked out of the roadway, as the highway has been improved to three and even four lane sections. The curves have been bypassed, in some areas numerous times.
One particular section of US 65 north of Harrison has seen two bypasses in the past 30 years. The first, in 1982, moved the highway less than half a mile to the west, but it was enough to change things drastically for one Boone County family. The second just recently has moved the highway way to the west.
But the DeVito family won’t give up. The fifth generation of DeVito cooks are still preparing some of the best Italian specialties you can find in Arkansas right along Bear Creek Springs and the family trout farm, all these years later.
The history reaches back several generations. On the DeVito side of the family there was Jim DeVito, an Army man born in Wisconsin who grew up in Illinois. He served in the European theater during World War II. His first stateside posting afterwards was at North Little Rock’s Camp Robinson… where he met his future wife, Mary Alice Raney. She was a student at Baptist Hospital. They married in 1947, and when Jim DeVito retired in 1970 after 29 years of service, they settled in Harrison.
Mary Alice’s dad was Albert Raney, Sr. He had himself a couple of big attractions up north of Jasper, a trout farm and a cave he showed people around in called Mystic Cavern. In 1966 he sold the trout farm and cave to an up-and-coming enterprise called Dogpatch USA. The Raney family continued to operate that trout farm until the attraction closed in 1993.
Mr. Raney also owned a little patch called Bear Creek Springs along US 65. He had blasted the rock where the springs tumbled out and created a trout farm. When Jim and Mary Alice DeVito came back to Harrison in 1970, he gave them the farm to run and keep. They ran it with Mary’s brother Gene quite successfully, building it up into a great attraction that was a must-stop for travelers on the Little Rock-to-Springfield route. In his retirement and with a crop of boys to feed, the DeVitos also opened an antique store.
This was the first time the highway ran away from the DeVito’s. For so many years, traffic had brought people whirring by the trout farm, right on the shoulder of the road and so easy to see. They stopped in droves to cast a line and reel in dinner. But when Bear Creek Springs was bypassed in 1982, they stopped stopping.
Business for the trout farm shrank… out of sight, out of mind. Sure, there were signs to direct people down into the hollow below the new roadway, but there were also signs going the other way for US 62, which took travelers to Eureka Springs. There were also signs for Silver Dollar City, the growing theme park in Branson just across the Missouri border, and for acts such as the Baldknobbers and the Presleys along Highway 76.
Well, it was time for a change. In 1986, with the four boys back home and full partners in the enterprise, the DeVito’s opened a restaurant across the road from the trout farm. It became an overnight success. People would drive in for miles around to come eat fresh trout and fabulous Italian dishes in the little restaurant over the antique store and rock shop. Some would come and fish at the farm and have their catches cooked up fresh, but far more came just to eat and experience a fabulous Italian experience in the Ozarks.
And the popularity was well earned. The men held court in the kitchen -- cooking fish and making sides, bread and dessert from scratch. Their rich tomato-strong sauce became famous, as did their overstuffed ravioli. The restaurant drew in business so fast that two years after opening oldest son James picked up and started a second restaurant in Eureka Springs, which was also an instant hit. And in the late 90s a third DeVito’s was opened at Big Cedar Lodge near Branson.
That last restaurant was fortuitous. In 2000 DeVito’s original restaurant at Bear Creek Springs was destroyed by fire. Business still continued at Big Cedar Lodge but there was a decision to be made. Brothers Steve, Chris and Joe made the decision -- they had to rebuild. 14 months later they were open once again, in a beautiful new facility twice as large as the old one. It thrived from the moment it opened its doors.
But the highway wasn’t done with DeVito’s. The late Oughts brought controversy to folks all along the Harrison-to-Branson corridor, with the coming of a four-lane replacement for the major highway that connected the two cities. The new road was given the US 65 designation, the old road became a series of local loops along the way, and DeVito’s restaurant and trout farm were that much further from the hubbub of traffic.
Still, it persists. Sure, business took a hit, but locals still come all the time. And in April the DeVito brothers received a great bit of news -- they’ve received a liquor license from the state, which will be sure to draw people who’d like to have a little wine with their trout. The restaurant is filled with DeVito’s -- the boys have had children of their own, and most of the employees are some relation.
The springs are as they always were, clear and a constant 58 degrees year round. It’s full of rainbow trout, ranging from small fry to buggers in the five pound range. You can still go down and fish -- taking home whatever you catch cleaned and packed in ice at the bargain rate of $6.25 a pound.
Now, though, you can pay an extra $5 and get that trout cooked and served up with a choice of potato and some hush puppies. A salad’s another $3. It’s still a deal.
On an unusually warm Sunday morning in April, the trout were especially biting. Joe DeVito showed me and my photographer across the old foot bridge and down to the westernmost pool, where we could see trout popping the water and nosing up to the bank. They’re used to people; fish feed is available for a quarter a handful to toss in. Kids love to watch the feeding frenzy.
“We had four really big ones in that pool over there,” Joe points out as we walked along, “but an otter got them.”
No matter. We sat down our bag and inspected the tackle we’d brought along. I cast out first, getting a hit right off the bat on a piece of fish food, a small fish maybe a half pound in size. Joe came over and unhooked the little one and tossed him back in.
“When I was a kid, there would be days when kids would be lined up all along the bank, nearly shoulder to shoulder. Sometimes people would have to wait.”
“And it’s always been this way?”
“People used to come out all the time and catch their dinner. But since the highway moved in ‘82 it hasn’t been as busy.”
I pulled in my first keeper of the day, a pounder who’d swallowed the treble hook on my spoon. Joe expertly flicked it off and dropped it into water in a wire box at the water’s edge.
I pulled out two more that were in the pound and a half range as my photographer caught shots across the pond. The sun was piercing. I was going to end up with a sunburn.
It was his turn, and I took the camera as he made his first unsuccessful cast. Maybe I shouldn’t have poked fun, but on his next cast he hooked in quick to something with some fight to it. For several minutes it pulled back on him, wearing itself out. Joe joined him on the bank with the net, and together they pulled out a two and a half pound beauty.
It was still fighting and managed to get off the hook onto the bank. Joe picked it up, took it over to the fishing shed and deftly bonked it on the head with a short metal rod. The fish quieted, and I got to shoot my photographer with his catch.
A few minutes later, he hooked in again, this time bringing in a three-and-a-half-pounder. I felt dutifully humbled at my earlier success.
I cast in again while he took fish pic- tures. It was funny to watch him as he took off a shoe and placed it next to the fish on the bank. His three-and-a-half pounder was longer than his size 12 ½ loafer.
I had one more catch that day, my largest, a two pounder I took from Joe by the gills to have my own photo taken with. What can I say -- there’s little glamour to fishing.
We talked with Joe as he took our catch into the shed and ran a sink of water. He told us about growing up with the trout farm as he expertly beheaded and gutted the fish one by one. They were each cleaned thoroughly and put in a container. He then took the largest of the fish and carefully butterflied it as we watched.
“It took me a while to learn this,” he said. “When we just had the trout farm, we’d just clean them and pack them away. Now, some folks cook them whole with the bones in them. I think people like it better when there aren’t any bones in them.”
He slid the knife along one side of the ribcage and then the other and removed it, then slid it into the meat on each side and removed the second row of bones. A quick trim of the belly fat and there was a gorgeous butterflied fillet of trout.
He filleted two more and then we were heading back across the footbridge, me to the bathroom to clean up and wash while Joe headed for the kitchen.
I had brought a clean shirt and took the time to wash up, brush my hair and change before sitting down for lunch. This part of the job was what I was really used to.
We started with a couple of appetizers -- the Trout Fingers ($7.95) and the Toasted Ravioli ($6.95). The crispy little trout fingers were lightly breaded with a cornmeal mixture. They were slightly salty, nicely seasoned and served up with tartar sauce. It was difficult to keep from inhaling the half-inch-thick little pieces of firm fresh trout.
The raviolis were fat swollen affairs filled with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses and tiny little bits of salami. They’re hand-made and gooey thick and served up with some of the DeVito’s house red sauce, a marinara that includes a lot of tomatoes, fresh spices and a little flavor of pork. I could only take the smallest taste of this and wish I could have had more.
That was all right… there was much food to come. We knoshed on salads and homemade Italian bread with real butter before our entrées arrived. With them came a surprise… the brothers had sent out a half-order of the other ravioli they make, a splendid chicken, spinach and cheese combination heavy on the meat. The sauce, a Parmesan based cheese sauce, was ethereal. I believe I tasted notes of Asiago and perhaps Romano in the sauce but was too polite to ask.
We’d ordered trout -- I mean, we’d caught the trout, so it only made sense, right? My companion had ordered the Pesto Trout ($17.95), and it was a beauty, a gorgeously butterflied fish covered in a fine fresh basil and garlic pesto with pine nuts and olive oil and just a touch of cheese. It was fragrant and almost delicate.
I chose to do the Half-and-Half ($16.95)-- not listed on the menu, but available and usually suggested by the staff. On one half Cajun seasoning is used; on the other, the DeVito family spice mix. It was the latter that really won my heart, with flavors of parsley and paprika and peppers and such, all on a nice soft buttery fillet.
The portions were enormous. Later we’d find that the portions were oversized just because we’d caught bigger fish. Yes, we took what we didn’t eat home with us.
As full as we’d become, my photographer insisted we try two of the different pies offered for dessert. He’d been in the kitchen when they had pulled the hot pies from the oven. The scent had been overwhelming.
Brother Steve is the pie maker. He makes all of the pies the restaurant serves up. My companion had already decided on the Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie and had offered to share, but I couldn’t resist the traditional Apple Pie. Besides, mine came with a scoop of ice cream.
As we sampled our pies, Joe mentioned his brother James and the operation over in Eureka Springs. “A lot of people think DeVito’s, they think about his place. When the awards come out each year, they get sent here even though they’re for over there. I think we’re as good, three times as good. He does make his own bread and scampi, but we make everything.”
There’s still some love there, though. James DeVito still uses fresh trout from the family trout farm in his dishes.
We were into our pies. I had to try a little bit of the Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie. It might be the most alcoholic-flavored non-alcohol in the area. I could quite clearly taste the Canadian Mist by brand within microseconds. The rich custard was only enhanced by the chocolate. It had a soft biscuit-y flakey crust that fell apart in my mouth.
As good as it was, I was so glad I’d chosen the Apple Pie. The crust was almost phyllo-dough layered but softer and with so much butter in it. The apples were pliant, like they’d recently been picked, undoubtedly never canned. They were almost pear-like in flavor and firmness, sweet apples instead of tart. With the homemade-style golden vanilla ice cream, it was ambrosial.
It was also the absolute last thing I could manage to ingest, and that was a tight call at that. As we prepared to take off, we were presented with the rest of the fish we’d caught, already packed and iced for us to put in a cooler and take home with us.
While we’d been there, we’d talked about the recent development of Boone County going wet. Turns out that next week the DeVitos found out they had been granted the liquor license they’d applied for. That’s really good news. The brothers hope having that license will bring back the crowds they once had in the restaurant.
Thing is about those crowds -- for the most part, they’re return customers. “We have people who come in once a year at the same time each year,” Joe told me. “They’ll see the same people who also show up at the same time each year and say ‘hey, weren’t those people in here last year?’ and we’ll say ‘yeah, they’re in here every night!’ ”
He told us about a couple who’d come in every night and a couple of lunches each week, a couple of vegetarians who always got the Eggplant Parmigiano to share. They came every week until the man had died. Such devotion to one restaurant is rare around these parts. I find it so sweet.
Outside, it was amazing how quiet and still things were. A few more photos and we left out, heading north. The same old bridge just north of the Springs is still there, probably unchanged since 1982. Up on the old highway the signs still point into the hollow. And out on the new four-lane, there’s a sign that says just where to turn to head down to the trout farm. If you’re along the way, it’s worth a stop-in. Don’t worry if you forgot your fishing pole -- they have tackle you can borrow.
You’ll find DeVito’s Restaurant and the trout farm at Bear Creek Springs by heading north on US 65 from Harrison to Old US 65 north of town. Veer right and go a short distance for the next right hand turn. The restaurant will be a block down on the left; the trout farm across the street to the right. It’s open Wednesday through Friday and Sunday for lunch and Monday through Saturday for dinner. You don’t need a fishing license to fish there but you do need an appetite for dinner. For more information call (870) 741-8832 or check out the website at www.devitosrestaurant.com.