Sunday, September 28, 2014

Taliano's Italian Restaurant, Fort Smith - Elegant Dining.

Fort Smith’s oldest Italian joint still stands downtown.  Taliano’s Italian Restaurant resides in a two story brick home, the 1887 J.M. Sparks Mansion. Two men -- Jim Cadelli and Tom Caldarara
-- took the recipes their mothers taught them and put them to good use within the walls of the home, changing little over the years but the prices.

The mansion has been kept up over the years. Chandeliers have been converted from gas to electric. Fleur de lis carpeting, velvet drapes and candelight make it one of the most romantic places in town. Oh, why have I not experienced the magic?

Oh, but I have. I even remember the date of my first visit. It was August 5, 1993, and my boyfriend and I were marking six months. I had the Veal Scallopini. He had the Seafood Diavolo. He had red wine. I had a cappuccino (a novelty to me at the time). I had an accident and spilled said beverage down the front of my shirt. He had a conniption fit. I insisted we stay for tiramisu.

For two young folks to drive up from Russellville for dinner is something else. The incident didn’t mar my love for the place. After all, the sauce was flavorful and fresh, the pasta pliant and marvelous, the cappuccino wet, the tiramisu a moist and caffeinated dream that fueled the drive home since the cappuccino couldn’t.

That was 21 years ago. After all these years, does it still stand up as an outstanding example of fine Italian family cookery? Is it still romantic? Could it be romantic while photographing and taking notes about the food?

We decided to try on a cool September night. We met a rather friendly fluffy gray cat outside, who insisted on attention before we made our entrance. The Talianos folks say the fellow belongs to nearby neighbors but he’s a regular mooch at the door.

Inside, we were first seated in an interior room where the bar was located, but we found that taking photographs of anything there was going to be problematic – candlelight may be great for romance, but it sucks for taking photos. We explained the issue to our waitress, and she happily
sat us out in the sunroom, where she turned up the lights for our benefit.

We noticed right away that the menu prices have changed since the last time they were updated on the website, but not so much as to scare us off. We decided to start off with the Baked Artichoke
appetizer, which turned out to be a large flat ramekin full of artichoke hearts submersed in marinara and coated in cheese, baked and served with fresh bread. Oh, the bread? It’s cooked and sliced just like the loaves
you get at the store, but a lot softer inside. The artichokes were still piquant and the overall flavor was a wee bit sharp but still marvelous.

We took our time about ordering, and finally came to our conclusions and ordered. While we waited, we chatted and our waitress came out and lit our candle. The music periodically soared, an all-Italian soundtrack without much English, with melodies straight out of the 1950s, maybe even out of Roman Holiday. We enjoyed our salads adorned with hefty globules of blue cheese dressing, enjoyed them a lot.

Our orders were eventually delivered, and we did our dance, amusing the waitress as we exchanged places (plates were hot and full of pasta, so that seemed the better idea), shooting at level and overhead the two dishes set before us.

Grav’s Herbed Linguine With Grilled Chicken made me heady with the scent of so many fresh herbs. The pasta, recently cut and a hair off al dente, seemed to soak in the butter and oil herb sauce that also encompassed the chicken. For me, it ticked all the boxes – light enough so you could still
taste the flavor of the pasta and chicken, yet with a strong aroma that made my mouth water. It was crowned with sautéed mushrooms and Swiss cheese and even more herbs. Now, honestly, Grav was a little disappointed, but I think that might have to do with how much salt we prefer. He likes a LOT of salt.

I had gone for a duo of flavors, after I had found that the vegetarian pastas
were options to be added to the already more-than-adequate list of dishes to double up. The lasagna slid across the plate a bit, its homemade pasta sheets unglued from the four cheeses adhering it thanks to the plethora of meat sauce between its ample spans. The beef almost overwhelmed the tomato in the sauce, but it lead to a very hearty dish.

The other side of my plate was far more exciting,
though – three hand-crimped spinach ravioli filled with both spinach and cheese, topped with fresh, chunky marinara atop a bed of Alfredo-type sauce. The play between Alfredo and marinara would have made it interesting enough; the comfortingly substantial ravioli somehow managed
to develop the wonderful fresh flavor of the spinach without the overwhelming flat tones many spinach-sort pastas tend to get. I will get this next time by itself, it’s that good.

Dessert was out of the question. There was no way we were going to be able to consume anything else. And that’s okay. Our hostess mentioned that there are a lot of people who like to come in just for dessert and coffee. We’re going to have to do the same.

And that’s the thing… those ladies, most of the diners there, even Grav himself, have been coming back for decades and generations. See, when the restaurant opened in 1970, there weren’t any other Italian restaurants in town. Today there are a handful. Taliano’s survives because it doesn’t change. The two families still run it – grandchildren now filling their grandparents’ roles. The menu is perfect as is. The house is beautiful. It’s still a popular place for wedding receptions and prom night dinners… and as long as the families stick with it, it’ll remain that way.

If you haven’t been, check it out. If you have, it might be time to head back again. Watch out for the cat.

Taliano's Italian Restaurant
201 N 14th St, Fort Smith, AR 72901
(479) 785-2292

Taliano's Italian Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Funky Flea Market Finds in Branson.

Just for the fun of it... here's a fluffy post full of photos taken with my phone in a flea market in Branson - The Apple Tree Mall Antiques and Flea Market, to be precise. This oversized craft-filled mall bears the distinction of being open 9 a.m. - 11 p.m. most days, which means you can browse both before and after the shows -- and even after the rest of the shopping possibilities in town have closed up for the night.

Being where it is, it has some unusual items. Check these out -- and feel free to share your strange findings on my Facebook page or Twitterfeed.

I now know where all the world's ukeleles come from.

Milk bottles are interesting.  I collect different historical food items for the
possible inclusion in future Southern Food and Beverage Museum exhibits,
but this seems excessive.

Still, you have to wonder about people who kept pristine examples of such
things as ice cream cartons.

Yet still, the Borg apparently infiltrated Earth
in the mid 20th Century (see first photo).

A prime example of using what you have on hand:
beer can wind charms.

I don't even know.

Again, I don't even...

And then we have the Hillbilly Brief Case.  Points for literal interpretation,
marks off for containment (and the potential for marks on).

This is Grav's sign.

Ah yes, enough jerky to render a tie out of.  Hey, that gives me ideas.

The fact that someone thought this needed to be emphasized with a sign
gives me concern for the future of the human race.

Roger Williams apparently is done with the human race.  Great Vulcan
ear bob there, Rog!

If this were in our house, it would have fallen off
the wall repeatedly for overuse.

Every once in a while, it's nice to be able to tell someone "here's your sign."

Hey, some of us actually like getting underwear...

Yeah, I'm done.

Find more here:
The Apple Tree Mall
1830 W 76 Country Blvd, Branson, MO 65616
(417) 335-2133

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tavola Trattoria, Bentonville - Fresh, New, Bright.

Bentonville's exploding with fresh new restaurants.  A new and diverse palette of flavors can be found in its downtown -- from Matt McClure's The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel with its ever-fresh emphasis on
regional produce and flavors to the rustic "let's see how many animals we can eat in a sitting" adventure of Tusk and Trotter.  The Italian representative in this new wave happens to be next door to the latter, the airy and distinctive Tavola Trattoria.

Opened in 2011 by the folks that brought the esteemed Table Mesa modern Latin restaurant to the Bentonville square in 2008, Tavola's sleek lines and even sleeker dishes are respectable upscale dining.  Honestly, here's your date night right here. Carl Garrett's second venture offers a new take on traditional Italian classics, and he's dubbed the efforts "modern Italian cuisine."

We dropped by on a suddenly cold September lunchtime for a quick bite -- and to pick up a little more research for the Pasta Week project.  Our seating in the front window of the restaurant was delightful -- a small area of four tables slotted in-between windows facing north and east, separated from the main dining room by sail-light sheeted curtains.  No tablecloths -- this was a lunchtime, as I mentioned -- but still refined.

We chose two specialties for the meal -- that took some doing, since the menu is very, very long.  Meals are offered in individual or family sized portions.  We chose to go with signature dishes, choosing the Tavola from the pizza menu and the Ravioli Tavola, partly because of the descriptions but partly because we were at the "everything looks good" stage and decision making wasn't going to be strong with any of us.

Actually, that's not entirely fair.  Hunter's the one who decided on the Tavola pizza.  She loves gorganzola cheese and she adores pears and once she read that on the menu she had to have it.

I do need to mention the tea -- which was nice and robust and clean.  A beef I have with many restaurants is how tea is made and kept.  I can pretty much tell when the tea is old, or when the tea leaves or bags have been left to sit in the water.  Neither was the case here.  The tea was refreshing and not stale.  Okay, that's it for my tea-nerdiness.

Our dishes arrived together, and they were delightful.  Hunter's choice of the Tavola pizza was spot-on.  The pesto base and the buttery crust were fragrant with parsley and rosemary, nicely nutty.  The pears and the onions had been caramelized together and had merged into a lovely tangy-sweet and savory union.  The arugula gave a tangible crunch to the compilation, and the pecorino and gorgonzola
cheese came together well with that little bit of mozzarella to create the perfect bright and fresh pizza.

Still, even with that, I liked my ravioli better.
The delicate pockets of thin-rolled pasta had been filled with blue crab meat and parmigiano-reggiano cheese with a hint of white wine and cream -- that I later found to be parsnip cream.  I like parsnips.  They were topped with a parmesan cream sauce, shaved parmigiano-reggiano and dried herbs and served not only with asparagus (the menu calls for seasonal vegetables) but a magnificent red pepper cream sauce
expertly traced along the inside edge of the plate... along with a single tomato.  The presentation was absolutely perfect.

And it was utterly delicious.  I've had many a frou-frou plate set before me that delighted me with flavors but disappointed me in satisfaction, and this was not the case.  The plump pouches weren't oversized but they were filled within a squidge of bursting and the flavors they contained were fantastic.

Tavola doesn't seem to have a separate lunch or dnner menu -- but that's all right.  For a romantic dinner, it'd be absolutely marvelous.  Sharing the experience with my daughter was pretty dang magical, and I can report she highly approves of this restaurant.

I really want to come back and try the Polpettone, the Wagyu beef in parmesan cream sauce and Buffalo mozzarella -- along with the Veal Osso Bucco (which I would have ordered, had it not been only offered at dinner) and the Tavola Ratatouille with butternut squash and goat cheese.  And I absolutely have to come back for the poached Chianti pear.

Tavola Trattoria
108 SE A St, Bentonville, AR 72712
(479) 715-4738

Tavola Trattoria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato