FAYETTEVILLE — Fresco Cafe and Pub is another sign of the times: Fayetteville’s entertainment district has jumped the Dickson Street lines. An outcropping of restaurants and bars separate from the college kids’ scene has brought new life to the downtown square. All that remains to be seen is if the adults can keep up the energy level.
This is what the grown-up world looks like: It lives in a corner of a business building, for one. (So much of the adult world takes place in business buildings, do we have to eat in one, too?) Its interior is sophisticated, with a contemporary European feel that is airy and comfortable. Just as important, no one is barfing up Bud Light in the next booth. Adults can keep it down; smart adults drink something else.
The Fresco Café is another attempt at being an Italian restaurant that doesn’t only want to be an Italian restaurant. The trend dates back years, though I’ve always thought that it demonstrated a lack of belief in the power of Italian food. Listen, Italian restaurant owners: You’re working with pasta, cheese, tomatoes and olive oil. Have you seen Italian people? They’re happy!
Recently, my lunch companion and I entered Fresco looking to be blissed out in Mediterranean fashion. I had taken some stock in the slogan, that’s practically a billboard on the website: “Italian Fresh… Fayetteville Good!” What we found was (mostly) good – though I’m not sure how Fayetteville good differs from Fresno good or Fargo good — but much of it was not exactly Italian.
Take the appetizers: You can get bruschetta. And better yet, meatballs. As a starter! That’s like getting Louis C.K. to warm the house for Lewis Black. And, then ... let’s see, there are chicken tenders, served with BBQ sauce! Our waitress’ recommendation? Southwest Rolls stuffed with corn, black beans, red peppers and jalapenos. She didn’t even recommend the Italian food. But my nomination for gutsiest appetizer goes to: potato chips. “Best Chips Around!” it says on the menu.
I was tempted to order the chips, just to indulge in the silliness. But then I noticed that all the sandwiches come with the chips anyway.
Searching for more Italianness, I scanned the entrees, which didn’t take long. There are two: spaghetti with meatballs and lasagna. That is the extent of the “entrée” menu. Noticing my sigh, my dinner partner tried to perk me up: “There’s something to be said for doing a few things well.” OK, but this is an Italian restaurant! And the waitress says the best thing is the Southwest Rolls!
There are also flatbread pizzas, which come with your choice of toppings or in carefully crafted combinations, such as the Margarita, the Mediterranean, which includes sundried tomatoes and cherries. Other options are the garlic pesto pizza and the Shrimp Florentine, with garlic pesto Alfredo sauce, fresh spinach, Arkansas bacon, shrimp, and “microplaned Parmigiano-Reggiano.”
I was so curious about the microplaned thing that I made a note to look it up. Guess what? It’s shredded.
Our eyes settled on the sandwich portion. I don’t know much about life in Italy, but I know they make some nice Paninis. This menu seemed to offer just one: The Pesto and Cheese Panini. When asked for recommendations, the waitress didn’t really have any. She said she hadn’t tried much on the menu. I nodded. “So you try not to eat here?” I went to write that down in my notebook. “No!” she insisted. “I’m just new.” OK. But any good manager would make sure the wait staff knows the menu. She’s not alone. After doing this job for a few months, I’ve come to realize that poorly trained staff is more common than not in Northwest Arkansas. Growing pains, I guess.
We were hungry, so we went with the meatiest. He requested the Old Main and I got “The” turkey sandwich. Apparently it’s a turkey sandwich so good, even the definite article sets it apart. It was served with Cajun remoulade and fresco slaw. It also called it a Panini, but then said it was served on two slices of wheat berry bread. Have I mentioned I don’t know much about Italy, but I know what a Panini is? Apparently, they do not. A Panini is not served on sliced bread.
To get some semblance of Italian cuisine, we also ordered meatballs for an appetizer. And we got the artichoke dip to make it seem like more of a party.
My lunch buddy, Jesse, is from Akron, Ohio, which happens to be a hotbed of meatballs. His mother recently lost most of her friends by switching her meatball supplier. That’s damn near treason in those parts.
The appetizers arrived fast. The presentation of the meatballs was spectacular. They looked like the buttons on Santa’s suit, big and round with parmesan shavings hanging on like snowflakes and bright white against the red of the marinara. Jesse dove in. “That’s a good meatball,” he said knowingly. “Meaty. Not a lot of bread filler.” I quickly agreed. They were also very juicy but with a good crust. Jesse also acknowledged the marinara sauce as “not too tomatoey” and with a hint of citrus. “That’s a little odd,” he said, “but I like citrus in just about anything.” I’m onboard with that.
He had equally high praise for the artichoke dip, which contained generous chunks of the vegetable that were slathered with toasty warm feta and mozzarella. A satisfying combo.
Our sandwiches arrived. “The” turkey sandwich – that claimed to be a sandwich and a Panini — did deserve high praise despite its poor definition. The Cajun remoulade was wonderfully flavorful, the turkey was high quality and textured. And the red slaw provided wonderful crunch. I noticed the sliced bread had deep grill marks across it – as if it were wearing a cheap Panini Halloween costume.
And it came with chips! Those terrific chips! I put one in my mouth and thought it was cardboard. It was dry and flavorless, almost burned. It didn’t even have enough salt. Jesse was equally bewildered. He noted that you could go right down the street and order truly terrific homemade chips at Loafin’ Joes. We could see it from our window!
Jesse was also less than impressed with his Old Main. “It’s good,” he said, “but I had pretty high expectations. A lot of meat, but the other flavors aren’t really doing much.” We got the sandwiches split, and we swapped. I immediately wanted the “the” turkey back. He was happy to give up the Old Main. In my opinion, the basil pesto just wasn’t working in the sandwich and there wasn’t enough flavor from the rest of the ingredients. “At least it’s a good protein source,” said Jesse.
There were not many inspiring desserts. The waitress admitted the cheesecake was not made in house. She recommended the Chocolate Bunt Cake. The menu said it came with chocolate ganache, and a surprise! We were both ready for a surprise that we’d actually enjoy, so we ordered it.
The cake came out quickly and piping hot. It was very rich but very good, with the ganache oozing from the sides. We tore into the middle, looking for the surprise. We found gooey goodness, but nothing else. I asked the waitress about it. She said she thought the ganache was the surprise. “But that’s listed in the description! That gives it away!” She looked as befuddled as we did. Jesse moaned, “I was hoping for a decoder ring.”
So maybe life in the adult world is just one big disappointment. You start carrying expectations for things like Paninis and you get sandwiches instead. You want a surprise, and adults blow it before you get to unwrap it. Maybe it’s better not to care. Later, I learned that Fresco doubles as a nightclub called Club Lush. That makes sense. So here’s to the kids. Don’t grow so old you that you care about Paninis.