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I have now been to Rivera Italian Restaurant four times over the past year, and one thing truly stands out about the North Little Rock restaurant. Cheese. They love cheese. Management embraces it, and just about every dish is a full-on cheese-fest. This is a compliment, a big compliment, in fact. Being stingy with cheese, in this case mozzarella, should be a sin, so full props to Rivera for always having a heavy hand.
My love, however, for the small eatery does not stop with its cheese indulgences. Rivera has everything you look for in a restaurant. The service is always so warm and friendly, prices are reasonable, and the atmosphere is both cozy and unpretentious. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by that latter point, as Rivera’s white tablecloths and dimly lit setting are a welcome sight for a restaurant tucked behind a Burger King in a strip center off busy McCain Boulevard.
My initial visit was a quick one, highlighted by a takeout dish of creamy Penne Bolognese. Pasta travels well, but I was also particularly impressed by Rivera’s meticulous packaging, so much so that it inspired a return trip just a few months later.
Apparently, folks in the area share the same sentiment, as Rivera seems to have developed quite a loyal following in a relatively short period of time. In the restaurant biz, consistency is king, and the food has yet to be anything but satisfying.
At lunchtime, Rivera offers a condensed menu of classics like lasagna, manicotti, and spaghetti from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Tuesday-Friday). Entrées come with a soup (get the Pasta a Fagioli, if available) or salad and bread knots, all for $10.95. Because of the focused menu, expect food to come out fast, which is an added bonus for folks in the area looking to squeeze in a quick meal. Be advised that a post-lunch, midday nap could happen. Manicotti tubes loaded with cheese and topped with more cheese will do that to a person. So will an eggplant Parmesan with a hearty portion of the fried vegetable and a blanket of mozzarella. While the arteries may cringe, your taste buds will be doing a happy dance.
I think a big part of Rivera’s success is due to a house marinara used on almost everything. It isn’t overly acidic and has a touch of sweetness. Given these traits, I imagine the sauce’s overall flavor manages to appeal to a broader audience. You will find a couple ladles of it on the meatball sandwich, which is currently my favorite menu item, thanks in large part to those beef meatballs that are as soft to the bite as can be. Think meatball pillows.
Two other plates that are must-orders include the chicken Parmesan and one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the Chicken Rivera with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus, and a cherry wine sauce, all on a bed of spaghetti. Offerings like chicken Marsala, shrimp Alfredo, chicken piccata, shrimp scampi, and cheese ravioli all have my attention for future visits.
Next time, maybe I’ll order something without cheese.
Or maybe not.
Rivera Italian Restaurant
4546 E McCain Blvd (North Little Rock)
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Closed Monday
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