There was a time that no restaurant in Little Rock was hotter than Graffiti’s Italian Restaurant on Cantrell Road. When Paul Bash, Ed Moore and Denis Seyer opened the Italian eatery back in 1984, they brought in sous chefs trained at some of the best culinary schools in the country. During the 80s and 90s, Graffiti’s was one of the city’s best dining choices. That distinction did not last, as the 21st century saw the restaurant decline in quality and attendance. The restaurant changed hands twice, eventually landing in the laps of Armando and Sarah Bolaños, owners of La Terraza Rum and Lounge in Hillcrest. Over the past year, the Bolaños family has worked hard to both restore Graffiti’s and adapt it to modern audiences. We got a taste of the new menu Graffiti’s will unveil in February and found plenty of flavor in plates both old and new.
“We have been trying to understand the clientele over the past year,” said Armando Bolaños. “It’s different from what we’re used to, and so we’ve had to make some adjustments while also improving upon some areas of the menu.”
One dish that has had very few tweaks is the Winter Salad with Latin Chicken. This salad largely stays the same over the course of the year, though the new version has added more arugula for a peppery bite. The winter version features a maple bacon vinaigrette, which adds plenty of depth. But the star is the Latin chicken, which is well spiced and served freshly cooked. The chicken and the vinaigrette seem made for each other, and the whole dish comes across as a fresh alternative to the typically heavy foods found on winter menus.
The classic Spaghetti and Meatballs, on the other hand, is both a bit heavier and has seen some upgrades. Armando wanted a different, softer texture to the meatballs than Graffiti’s originally had, so he turned to his family’s recipe for a solution. The meatballs are now made with a lower-fat beef, Italian sausage, veal and pork along with some Italian herbs and spices. The other feature deserving of attention is the tomato sauce, which includes whole chunks of tomato for a vibrant flavor. It’s Italian comfort food at its very best, and I would imagine almost everyone will enjoy it.
Those first two dishes are available on the menu right now. I also got to try a few plates off the new menu coming at the end of the month, and those bring new reasons to get excited about Graffiti’s. Armando is bringing out a Veal Marsala with pesto linguini and sautéed mushrooms. The veal cut is tender and sweet, and the Marsala wine sauce is reduced until it’s a beautiful amber hue. Graffiti’s will also be making a house-made ravioli dish with a creamy Bolognese sauce. Armando is still perfecting his ravioli technique; he won’t have to do much to the excellent flavor. But the best thing I tried is the upcoming Shrimp Scampi, which is an authentic take on the Italian staple. Shrimp cooked in butter gets topped with a lemon sauce and garnished with red pepper flakes and parsley for a simple-yet-deep experience. The scampi was among the best I’ve ever had, with only a little butter to frame up the lemon notes. I will be back for this one.
There was a time I would have called Graffiti’s the worst value in town when you consider the menu’s price point. That’s certainly no longer the case. Armando and Sarah Bolaños have created a new Graffiti’s, where special occasions and fine dining give way to comfort food and a family-friendly atmosphere. This isn’t stuffy food anymore. It’s a cheerful, delightful dinner menu that welcomes you home. If you haven’t been to Graffiti’s in a while, now is the time to come back.