Moments of clarity come in all shapes an sizes. And for Katrina O’Donell — who recently opened Italian eatery Arancini with her partner Daniel in West Asheville — deep realization also came with curious timing. Katrina was processing her recent diagnosis of ovarian cancer when the couple’s fast-casual concept launched in November 2015, but after the first day of service, “It didn’t feel right,” she says.
The health scare “changed the way I wanted to live my life in general,” Katrina says. “I am in charge of the food and that creative process, and I didn’t want to just bang stuff out anymore. I really wanted to slow life down and enjoy the moment.”
Likewise, Katrina says she wants her customers to take on a savoring mindset, bonding with loved ones over leisurely sips and bites. Accordingly, Arancini’s new concept, which went into effect in mid-December, focuses on wine and small plates.
“There’s no wine bar on the west side. We felt like it was underserved,” Katrina says, noting that Arancini’s selection of 20 (and counting) wines stems largely from personal tastes and outside advice. She points out a San Marzano and an organic grenache as favorites. Bottles are half-off on Wednesdays, and sangria specials are en route.
“And I’ve always enjoyed small plates,” Katrina says, noting that she favors organic ingredients and steers away from typical Italian pasta dishes. Instead, the rotating menu offers core items like charcuterie plus house-made specialties, including inventive salads, a gluten-free spaghetti-squash dish with house-made ricotta and herbs, and several iterations of the signature dish, arancini — rice balls stuffed with cheese and other items, then fried. Soon-to-come desserts will all be made in-house.
An added benefit of the calmer pace, according to Daniel, is that it “allows us to get to know the people of Asheville a little better. … The dishes we create come from a place of passion, because we are able to take more time to research the local ingredients. We’re able to get to know some of the vendors and purveyors.” Arancini’s popular meatball slider, for example, is made with beef from Hickory Nut Gap Farm and brioche from West End Bakery, in addition to a homemade take on bolognese.
“We really want to know our community, and that’s what we’re about now,” Katrina says. “It’s a way better format.”
Arancini is at 643 Haywood Road. Winter hours are 5:30-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. The wine bar will host its first live music night on Saturday, Jan. 23, at 7 p.m., when acoustic bluegrass act Fly By Night Rounders plays a free show.
Asheville Mardi Gras Cajun Cook-off
Professional and amateur chefs will compete to win the popular vote for best dish at the Asheville Mardi Gras Cajun Cook-off — a costumed fundraiser for the AMG parade. An event description prepares attendees for vast variety, reading: “Past dishes have included everything from alligator étouffée to lobster beignets.” Bayou Diesel will provide New Orleans-inspired live music for the occasion, which also offers drinks and a silent auction with eclectic art and “handmade oddities.”
The Cajun Cook-off is 2-7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24, at the Millroom, 66 Asheland Ave. General admission, which includes samples and voting rights, costs $15 per person ($5 for AMG members). Visit ashevillemardigras.org for details.
Fifth Season Gardening Co.’s free beer Fridays and FEAST fundraiser
Fifth Season’s new location — a regular event space in addition to a retail store — now houses a free weekly tasting for beer lovers. On Friday, Jan. 22, participants can compare unadulterated brews with samples that are tainted using an off-flavors kit before discussing solutions to undesirable brewing results. The following Friday, Jan. 29, the meeting will cover the pros and cons of serving beer warm versus cold. Finally, Fifth Season’s inaugural Community Harvest, an in-store fundraiser for a local nonprofit planned for the last Saturday of each month, will benefit FEAST on Saturday, Jan. 30. Representatives from the youth-focused healthy-eating organization attend an open house at the shop, receiving 10 percent of the day’s sales plus the entire month’s tips from the beer and coffee bar (at the staff’s suggestion).
Fifth Season is at 4 S. Tunnel Road. Visit fifthseasongardening.com for additional information.
Tomato grafting for better yields
“Grafting tomatoes onto productive and disease-resistant root stock has been shown to increase yields by over 50 percent,” reads a description of Living Web Farms’ forthcoming course on the subject. Led by Patryk Battle, the workshop covers grafting techniques and why they work, after-care and selection of tomato varieties.
Battle’s grafting course ($10 suggested donation) is 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Living Web Farms, 176 Kimzey Road, Mills River. Visit livingwebfarms.org for details or to register.
Beer dinner and winter wines at Isa’s Bistro
Isa’s chef Duane Fernandes will host Charleston-based chef Jacques Larson (of Wild Olive Restaurant and Obstinate Daughter) to create a four-course dinner that’s paired with Pisgah Brewing Co.’s seasonal selections. Before hitting the kitchen, both chefs will mingle with patrons, sharing the inspiration underlying their menu. Also at Isa’s each Thursday, wines are half-price throughout winter (end date to be determined).
The joint beer dinner is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, at Isa’s, 1 Battery Park Ave. The cost is $65, not including tax or gratuity. Visit isasbistro.com for details.