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In with the old
The new Lulav drops the Modern Eatery and adds old country, Italian Kitchen.
Just as Abraham Lincoln once said you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet, I believe it was noted Italian sculptor and later ninja turtle Michelangelo who said the highest art form is the task of reshaping oneself.
Ok, so maybe none of that is true, but it sort of seemed profound. And this is one of those moments where profundity feels necessary, because a well-known name in the downtown dining scene has engaged in Michelangelo’s highest art. Lulav Modern Eatery, as it has existed on Sixth Street between Louisiana and Center in downtown Little Rock since 2005, has converted to The Italian Kitchen. Or sometimes The Italian Kitchen at Lulav, to take advantage of the known branding. I guess it’s like a song title where part of it is in parentheses; it can be known either way.
Regardless, the new identity launched about two weeks ago, and with it comes some tweaks to the look and feel of the place, as well as a refocusing of the menu on Northern and Southern Italian cooking.
As to that look, it feels right in my mind. Maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s something very classic about an independent Italian place set up in a redecorated old building, and The Italian Kitchen (at Lulav) is that. An engraving near the restrooms notes the dates 1929 and 2004, which I understand to be the dates of construction and original renovation for the Mathis Building space. So the old artisan touches are all in evidence, intricately tiled ceiling and crown molding, though painted over in soft beige tones. The space is defined and in places divided by hanging cloth in the same and darker beige and brown tones to give an earthy vibe. As for new additions, wine barrels (reportedly emptied) have been upended and conscripted as tables in an entrance area, where the bar is. And the wine list has been revised, evidenced by a large buffet-like table of wines right by the front door, where diners can pick and choose a bottle (or bottles, if you’re really feeling it) by sight.
Of course, the hungry diner will be more attentive to what The Italian Kitchen is bringing out to the table, and there are notable changes in that department as well. Gone are some of the diversified specifics of international cuisine, such as curry and fajitas, and American favorites like burgers. They’ve been replaced with items from the Old Country.
Specifically, the menu is grouped into easy categories with a natural flow: appetizers up top, entrees in the middle, chef specials just below and finished by desserts. Within the entree group, plates are further divided into pizzas, pastas and “carni, pesci, pollo” or meat, fish and chicken dishes.
Among those appetizers one can find meat and cheese trays, as well as specific small dishes like shrimp scampi, stuffed mushrooms, mussels and fried artichokes. Here, too, are four salad selections and an offering of focaccia bread with olive and choice of balsamic vinegars: fig, blueberry, espresso or Sicilian lemon.
A quick survey of the entrees includes both classics and house specialties. To wit, pizzas range from pepperoni (smoked in house) and Margherita (tomatoes and basil) to asparagus and goat cheese or the “chef’s fave” of pistachio, Gorgonzola, arugula and marinara. Pastas, too, have their range. Familiars include traditional spaghetti with marinara and meatball or Alfredo, but it’s hard not to be curious about a vodka and pesto offering with Roma tomatoes and a “pink spicy cream sauce.” For the meat menu, as it were, the preparations include steak, pork Milanese, chicken risotto or parmigiano, sausage lasagna, shrimp and tilapia. Chef specials include the filet mignon and lamb sirloin.
All told, it adds up to a very different incarnation of an old staple, a new life on Lulav. Call it a Newlav, if you will. Or just call it The Italian Kitchen and be content the dinner options in the sometimes sparse setting of after hours downtown (outside of the River Market) haven’t diminished.
Focaccia, olive oil and balsamic vinegar ($8)
Never one to pass on bread with dippy stuff before a hearty, carb-heavy meal (yeah, I know...), I had to see what this option was all about. The answer proved pretty delicious. I’d asked a server in hopes that the options listed under the menu entry — fig, blueberry, dark espresso and Sicilian lemon — were all included, but alas I had to pick one, finally settling on lemon. The bread was herby and fragrant, soft and sliced thin. It would be great on its own, but the lemon balsamic certainly didn’t set it back. Sweet instead of tart, the end result was something almost lemon pastry-like in taste if not texture. It actually would have made a fine dessert, but didn’t seem out of place before the meal, either. My only hesitation was that, at $8, it seemed a touch pricey for something offered gratis in some places. (sw)
Carni pizza ($10)
So, I didn’t exactly feel like it was the most original order going for a meat lover’s pizza, but then I got the pizza, itself, and changed my mind. It’s not your standard circle, or even square, but a haphazardly shaped, obviously hand-tossed pie that gleams with originality. The crust is cracker thin and has a fresh-from-the-oven flavor note, a hint of flour and seasoning in it that really stands out. Only a dab of sweet tomato sauce allows the smoked pepperoni, prosciutto and sausage to take the front seat. It’s not a new combination, exactly, but it’s amazingly unique just the same, with every appearance of having been made in house (as I’m told it all is). A really fantastic pizza and enough of it to overeat on or even be restrained and set some aside for later, which is fine given the price. (sw)
Tuscan grilled shrimp ($16)
If you read this corner of the magazine regularly then by now you’ve figured out I’m a shrimp fan. This dish came with eight grilled shrimp on baby skewers and a side of veggies — mine were a mix of chopped yellow squash and mushrooms, sautéed and tasting of olive oil, garlic and a bit of black pepper. The shrimp were tender and seasoned well, also with garlic and maybe a little lemon, maybe Parmesan. The only shortcoming was a toughness in the very end of the tail and along the back where the vein would be that was hard not to notice. (sm)
IN A NUTSHELL
A familiar downtown eatery that has repurposed itself to focus on Italian cuisine. A historic ambiance adds to a menu of reasonable diversity, with extensive wine offerings to boot.
Location: 220 W. Sixth St., Little Rock
Phone: (501) 374-5100
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.; Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Alcohol: Full bar