Ever wonder what makes some of Little Rock’s food personalities tick? Food Insider takes a look at individuals who are helping change the landscape of our city’s culinary scene. Whether they’re in the kitchen, managing a storefront, farming land or running a food truck … we’ll delve into both the professional and personal side of these dynamite people. This week, it’s Nori Fryar of Sherwood’s Zaffino’s by Nori.
From the outside, there’s not much of a reason to ever walk into Zaffino’s on Kiehl Avenue in Sherwood. No flashing signage or bright colors beckon from this tiny strip mall restaurant. Instead, the flat-white brick structure almost shies away from your eyes, with a wrought-iron fence décor serving as the only hint of the restaurant’s nature. But I bet you won’t make it three steps in the door without finding the real reason to visit this Italian gem.
Her name is Giancarla Eleanora Menegaldo Fryar. But everybody calls her Nori.
Born in Italy a decade or so after World War II, Nori grew up in a small town near Venice, Italy, where she was living when she met Gary Fryar in a neighborhood discotheque. Fryar, a Hot Springs native, was stationed at a U.S. Army base in Vicenza. The two got married and lived in other bases around the world before settling down in Arkansas in 1981. Nori would end up working at Zaffino’s after getting her son, Michael, a job at the restaurant.
“The owner, he would say, ‘You’re Italian, you have an Italian accent, you have to work for me,’” says Nori. “So I was the hostess, and then he said, ‘You’re too good with customers, you need to wait tables.’ So that’s how I started here.”
Nori watched Zaffino’s change ownership several times over the years before deciding to buy the business herself in 1997. She took down the addresses of 120 of her best customers and closed the restaurant down for a couple of months to renovate.
“I will never forget it, it was Memorial [Day] weekend, I sent the invitations to the 120 people,” says Nori. “I had 89 people here for that first night. I had flowers from the front gate to all around the restaurant, from everybody congratulating me saying, ‘Nori, you did it!’”
The fact that so many eagerly returned to Zaffino’s can easily be attributed to Nori herself. Short, busy, and full of smiles and laughter, Nori is what you would imagine an Italian grandmother to be, but with even more love and joy. Nori greets every table, staying to talk as long as there’s conversation to be had. But what is really remarkable is how Nori remembers an astounding amount of detail. When I showed up in the afternoon to interview her, Nori not only remembered my first visit from two years ago, but what I ate, whom I was with and how busy the restaurant was that night. It is a rare quality, and it goes back to one of Nori’s key philosophies: if you love everyone who comes through the door, you’ll remember their name.
“I do love people,” says Nori. “I think I’m a people pleaser. I know that’s not good to say, but it’s true. I like people!”
Lest you think Nori is all charm, the mark she’s made on Zaffino’s menu would be reason enough to visit even if she never came to the table. Nearly every menu item is made from recipes that date back to Nori’s childhood and beyond. As a little girl, Nori would eat her nona’s (grandmother’s) food and write down each recipe. Those recipes are the ones used to make Zaffino’s cannelloni, lasagna, manicotti and other iconic, rustic Italian dishes.
Still, there is nothing more important to Nori, and Zaffino’s, than family. Nori’s son Michael Fryar manages the restaurant. A photomural on one wall shows Nori’s mother and father, children and herself as a younger woman. She swells with pride talking about her grandchildren. She speaks with honor of her father, who was held in a Nazi concentration camp during the war. That passion for family comes out when she talks about her customers. It’s one of the few times I’ve heard someone in the restaurant industry refer to their guests as family and truly believed it was genuine.
“When they tell me bye, do you know what they say to me?” asks Nori. “They say, ‘Thank you for dinner.’ The first time they did that to me, I got so emotional. You do that at home, you say ‘Thank you for dinner, Mom.’ And now I understand why they say that. They’re so happy to be here, and see me, and eat my food. And I’m so happy they’re here.”
It sounds clichéd and a bit hokey, but it’s true: there is love at Zaffino’s by Nori that you will start to experience just moments after you walk in the door.