Monday, October 10, 2011

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant - Lazzari Italian Kitchen in Jonesboro.

Lazzari’s Italian Oven (sometimes Lazzari’s Italian Kitchen or Lazzari's Italian Restaurant) is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere.  That’s saying something, ya think?  There are reasons for this that go far deeper than the food.

It was September 1995.  I was a radio producer and master control operator at KARN Newsradio, working weekend overnights.  I was also working a full time temp job during the weeks.  I was tired.  I wasn’t sure what life had in store for me.  I’d graduated from college a few months earlier and had found no upward moves in radio anywhere.

I’d sent out 90 cassette tapes and resumes all over, several different states.  89 of them reached radio stations -- most of which politely declined to consider me.  One of them asked for an interview.  It wasn’t a radio station.  I didn’t know that until I actually drove up to the station and discovered that KAIT-TV was a TV station.

So, September 1995.  It was a Monday.  I’d left KARN at the end of my shift at 5:30 that morning, gone home and dressed, then woke my boyfriend up.  We left at 8 a.m. for a 10 a.m. appointment, not realizing just how far away Jonesboro really was.  I was nearly an hour late for my interview and had gone in and had to admit I had not TV experience.  I was hungry and tired and frazzled and needed some comfort food.  Not knowing anything about Jonesboro, we stuck with main roads until we saw this building that looked like a former Western Sizzlin on the side of Caraway Road.

We went in and sat down and commiserated.  I just knew I had flubbed the interview.  I knew there was really no chance of me getting the job and I was bummed.  Our waiter came over and wrote his name upside down on the paper in orange crayon in front of us and dropped off a loaf of the saltiest Italian bread I had ever encountered.  It was delicious, especially with the whipped butter provided.

The menu was affordable.  The staff was friendly… and I discovered that the food was irresistible.  Even on our limited budget, my boyfriend Paul and I managed to share an entrée and salad and a piece of tiramisu that was to die for.  I felt better by the time we were done.  There would be other interviews.  I’d get my chance elsewhere.  And I thought I’d never step into Lazzari’s again.

I was wrong.  I was back there two months later.  I was offered the job and, after about two weeks of chewing my liver over leaving Little Rock, I took it.  My first week at KAIT was the week of November 6th, 1995 -- and I had my first meal as a resident of the city at Lazzari’s, on my own.  I was seated in the back next to the window, and I watched the world passing by.  I was 22 years old and was really out on my own for the first time.  And the pasta was fantastic.  I didn’t know what was going to happen, being a single woman in a new town, but I had pretty much decided that Lazzari’s was going to be a regular place for me to dine.

Three months later, my boyfriend showed up on my doorstep on a cold January night.  He missed me and wanted to move in.  It was a surprise.  We talked it out the next day over that hot Italian bread at Lazzari’s.  Yes, that was Paul.  He ended up moving in and doing some radio work up there.  He proposed to me on a March night that year, when Comet Hyakutake was streaking through the sky.

Paul got work at KAIT as a producer, and we’d go every week for lunch at Lazzari’s, usually on a Friday.  We were still poor, sure -- television doesn’t pay as much as you might think -- but we could afford a once-a-week lunch there.  We’d share a Mista, then each enjoy an entrée (which, thanks to the bread, was
always more than we could eat.  We’d always take a box home) and then share a tiramisu.  We usually sat at the same table, towards the center of the restaurant at a table next to the kitchen
entrance.  That’s where we shared so many stories, talked about work and music and what we planned to do with our lives.  Paul almost always got the Beef Ravioli, and I got the Chicken Cannelloni -- though
sometimes, if we had an extra dollar I would get the Seafood Cannelloni instead.  Back then, with tip, we usually got out of there for $15.

We had friends that worked their, too -- and when we’d have get-
togethers they’d sometimes bring bread and such as their contributions.  Our close friend Leif worked several of his college years there as a cook.  Leif’s a great cook.

Of course, we moved on from there.  I left Jonesboro in September 1998 to come back home, and Paul followed me a few months later. We’d visit our friends a couple of times a month… for about a year there.  And then in August 1999 we made our last visit.  I don’t know what we ate that time, but I do remember thinking I was going to miss that cannelloni and that salty bread.

Somehow, we didn’t go back.  First it was planning our wedding (we wed in November 1999), then it was work (Paul was a morning show producer at KARK when I started at Today’s THV) then it was… well, so many things.

In fact, I didn’t return to Jonesboro until 2007, with my brother.  He was trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life, and I took him up to meet the folks at KAIT.  My former director, Tim Ingram, is now the general manager; my former assistant producer, Hatton Weeks, is the news director.  We had a good meeting and a good tour of the station, and then I took Zack out to lunch at Lazzari’s.  He agreed how great a restaurant it was.

I don’t get up to Jonesboro so much, maybe once or twice a year now.  Last year when I went through I was hard at work on my breakfast story for the Arkansas Times, which left me full of eggs and pancakes and really not interested in eating again.  But this year, it was different. Working on a completely different story for the Times, I had already stopped in at seven other restaurants and was about to head home.  I had a backseat full of Styrofoam clamshell boxes from so many places where I’d breezed in, ordered food, had a bite and boxed it.  Then I was passing by Lazzari’s and I was suddenly madly hungry.  Go figure.

It was packed.  I was fortunate enough to get a seat up near the coffee bar.  There were no eyebrows raised by me dining alone.  There never had been.

I noticed portions of the restaurant had a new red paint job.  The coffee bar hadn’t been there in the 90s.  And there were framed crayon pictures here and there.  But essentially, it was the same restaurant.

Even the menu was virtually the same.  I was surprised that the prices hadn’t increased that much -- and then realized hey, this was the dinner menu, so really very little has changed.  There are some more expensive items on the menu now such as the Crabmeat Stuffed Tenderloin ($16.95) but there are so many more that are under $10 each.

There was even a special going on where you could have unlimited pasta and salads and bread for $8.95 -- but I couldn’t even imagine that.  I mean, I could never get through more than one pasta dish back in the day, and you can’t take home your leftovers if you get it.  That being said, the choices include Beef Ravioli, Fettuccini Alfredo, Pasta with Grilled Chicken and Linguine with Meatballs.

I almost didn’t have to look at the menu.  I knew what I was going to order -- the Grilled Chicken Cannelloni ($8.99).  I was glad to know it still came at night with the Lazzari’s Special Mista Salad.  I was just hoping it would all be as good as it used to be.

And I knew it was… when I sliced into the loaf of Italian bread brought to the table.  It smelled like a friendly memory.  It was crusty with little sesame seeds on the surface on the outside and soft and pliant within, pliant but still substantial, perfect for spreading that whipped butter.  A plate with cracked black pepper had
also been provided and there was olive oil on the table, but I knew better than to go there.  I ate a third of the loaf while sipping my tea and waiting for dinner.

This time it was a little different.  It was so busy that my Mista was
delivered a few minutes after my entrée.  But that was okay.  I was very cool with that.  By the time my salad was delivered I’d finished taking photos of my entrée, and by the time I was done shooting the salad the pasta had cooled enough to eat.

That Mista… that Special Mista ($5.99 without the entrée) is just the sort of things good memories are made of.  Salad greens soaked in the sweet vinaigrette I had forgotten I loved so much from before, sweet and garlicky and with a touch of lemon… with bits of artichoke hearts and red onion.  Big chunks of tomato and fresh croutons and Kalamata olives.  I didn’t remember the soft white cheese on it, but it was also good, just salty enough to balance it all out.  It is still, after all these years, one of my favorite salads.

And then there was the cannelloni.  It was salty… Lazzari’s never skimped on the salt, I fear.  That’s all right.  It was just as tasty.  The three long cannelloni were packed with finely chopped grilled chicken -- which had been cooked with peppers and onions and lots of spices.  They had been wrapped, tucked and covered with the best asiago cream sauce I have ever encountered in my travels, then topped with mushrooms and little scallion bits and covered with a bit more asiago and provolone cheeses.   They were just as good as I remembered, too.

And, as I also remembered, I could not finish it. In fact, more than half my dinner went in the box to take home.  This time I even skipped the tiramisu, though I did shoot it on my way out.  It was hard to pass on it, but I’d had so much pie…

But as I dined, as I enjoyed this meal from my past, I looked around and realized one thing had changed.  At more than half the tables within my eyesight, there were small children -- all under the age of four.  There were families here and there.  At the table next to me there was an older couple (I believe the gentleman was a faculty member at ASU, he looked familiar) discussing the merits of “No Country For Old Men.”

And back in the mid-section, just about the limit of what I could see, there was a couple in their 20s sitting at that table by the kitchen door.  They weren’t trendy or upscale but they were clean and they appeared to be happy. He was gesturing wildly with his hands, and she was giggling demurely into her napkin.  I noticed her slicing their loaf for the two of them.

I have missed this place. It has been 16 years since I first darkened the door but I still feel drawn back to it.  I have to go back again, soon.  I need to take others with me and share my stories and I need a slice of that tiramisu something bad.  I can still, if I think about it, recall the textures so clearly -- the soft top dusted with cocoa, the custardy bits, the mushy soft espresso soaked ladyfingers that came in two layers, the dollop of whipped cream.  Soon. Soon I will try that again.

Lazzari’s is where it always ever was -- at 2230 South Caraway in the parking lot of the K-Mart and what used to be Perkins but which is now some sort of Mongolian-American buffet.  It’s open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and is closed on Sunday.  The phone number there is (870) 931-4700.

UPDATE: I kept my promise to myself. I've been back to Lazzari Italian Oven a couple of times a year since that visit in 2011. And now I've brought along two more fans.

First it was Grav. As we put together the Arkansas Pie book in August 2012, we stopped in for a dinner - anything that wasn't pie already! Mind you, I'd already raised his expectations quite a bit, a promise of something not-sweet was extended, and once the salty sesame seed encrusted bread reached the table he took to it with grateful joy.

We would come back again for the first booksigning at That Bookstore in Blytheville, taking the long way home.  That trip, there was more cannelloni, and affection. Grav was hooked.

Again, spring of 2013, as we were investigating the disappearance of Jonesboro's classic restaurants while researching what would become Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta. He dove into the All You Can Eat pasta, and boy, that was fantastic.

Now it's become a cycle - one we've pulled Hunter
into. After the signing at TBIB for the Delta book, and a crazy stop to pick turnip greens (I kid you not), we finally sat at the table with my girl, who went to town on alfredo noodles and bread and Mista salad, too. Now when she knows we're
going, she asks to come along.

Lazzari Italian Oven may not have been a classic when I first darkened the door. In fact, it was a brand new operation by the folks who ran The Galley, a local catfish and seafood joint that once stood in the Walmart
Supercenter parking lot. Lazzari actually means Galley in Italian, turns out! The name, though, has become synonymous with affordable Italian comfort food in my family, and I find myself returning again and again. Oh, if it were only closer to Little Rock.

Lazzari Italian Oven Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


  1. Nice to know your story. I hope you can go back there soon. I am at Beccles Suffolk right now. I am interested to try this place for that tiramisu.

  2. This place STILL has the best mista salad


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