Halfway through the telephone interview, Heather Ranalli-Peachee begs the reporter’s indulgence. She’s minding the store at Tontitown Winery, a venture she and her husband launched a few years back, and a customer has just come in. Ranalli-Peachee steps away from the phone to cheerfully fill the man’s order of hand-crafted wines made from her family’s ancestral grapes.
Returning to the phone, she’s apologetic, but unnecessarily so. After all, customers are guests here, and tradition dictates that guests must be treated a certain way. It’s a code of hospitality that’s as old as pasta, deeply rooted in the people of this Washington County enclave.
“I think that’s the Italian way, truly,” she said. “I think, as a whole, we’re a pretty welcoming people. We’re hospitable.”
Anyone who visits Tontitown, Arkansas, can’t help but be charmed by the small community. Surrounded as it is by mushrooming steel-and-glass growth in the booming northwest corner of the state, Tontitown (population 5,500) is a throwback to big yards, big families and an easier pace of life.
“I’ve been in Tontitown for 30-something years,” said Paul Colvin, who’s in his seventh year as mayor. “I grew up in the Springdale area and graduated from Springdale High School, which is next door to Tontitown. For me, Tontitown was always one of those places that you wanted to live growing up. It was just a Mayberry-type … little town for a lot of years.”
That Colvin could have been here for three decades and still feels the twinge of being an outsider from time to time tells you everything you need to know about the legacy and tradition that lives here. Tontitown was founded in 1898 by a clutch of Italian Catholic immigrants migrating from life as tenant farmers in southern Arkansas where they were struggling under disease, language barriers and extreme working conditions.
Led by their priest, Father Pietro Bandini, 40 families settled on a rocky patch of Ozarks, the terrain and cultivation of which harkened to their northern and central Italy homeland. They named it Tontitown after Henri de Tonti, the Italian who helped René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, explore the Mississippi River and later founded Arkansas Post in 1686, per the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Ranalli-Peachee’s great-grandfather was among the original settlers, and his story followed a familiar arc. Nazzareno Ranalli worked as a farmhand until he could save up enough money to purchase property on which he grew grapes. His son and sole child, Joe, continued the family business as did Ranalli-Peachee’s father Chris, the youngest of seven children. Living off the same land as the previous three generations is one of her greatest sources of pride.
“I feel pretty fortunate to be able to be a part of my family’s heritage and to still be able to be in this area. We’ve been able to stay here and make a good life,” Ranalli-Peachee said. “That allows us to continue to tell our story and carry on our traditions. Pride is what I feel most and thankful that our family was able to push through a lot of hardships and bring us to where we are today.
“So many families and people lose interest in their story, and it’s just always been pretty important to me.”
Tontitown thrives on such long-lived ventures, especially when it comes to the food culture for which the Italians are well-known. Take the venerable Venesian Inn, which has operated since 1947 and was inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame in 2018. Or Mama Z’s, equally admired if less tenured, having been open since 1988. And Guido’s Pizza is a regular toddler having “only” opened in 1994.
Ranalli-Peachee loves all three, and offered a primer on how to eat like a local.
“I have a method to that,” she said. “At Mama Z’s, I like anything with red sauce. So, spaghetti and lasagna are my favorites at Mama Z’s. And then at Venesian Inn, anything with white sauce. They make this dish, it has grilled chicken breast and sautéed vegetables, and it has Alfredo sauce with it. It is fantastic. And then, there’s Guido’s Pizza, the best pizza in Northwest Arkansas. I love the Canadian bacon pizza from there, but if we’re going for beer and pizza, you have to have pepperoni with jalapeño.”
But by far the most famous crossroads of culinary and culture is the annual Grape Festival, a fundraiser for the local Catholic church that has grown to one of the largest community festivals in the state. First held as a parish picnic in June 1898, it became an August event in 1913, expanding to multiple days in the 1930s. Generations of festivalgoers have attended the event to sample the local vino, take in the carnival midway and gorge themselves on plates of homemade pasta and fried chicken. (The event, which at last count pulled in 9,000 attendees annually, was canceled for the first time in 2020).
Father John Connell, who has been pastor of St. Joseph Church in Tontitown since 2017, says Tontitown’s taproot of faith runs as deep as the connection to the land or to the cuisine.
“Tontitown is very connected to its heritage,” he said. “I’m Irish Catholic, but I don’t use that as the backbone of my personality in my priesthood. I would say that, if Tontitown were a person, they’re someone very proud of their heritage. It kind of dictates their movement going forward. Everything is seen through that lens. That’s not a bad thing; that’s just a reality of that parish.”
Connell, who’s also pastor of the mammoth St. Raphael Church in Springdale, said it was initially an adjustment to downshift into the decidedly smaller St. Joseph parish. He said he never felt ostracized in any way as a newcomer, but was always aware of the close-knit Tontitown way of doing things.
“Many of the things that they do are done out of tradition,” he said. “I had heard that it had a pretty strong personality as a parish. But every parish that you go to has some kind of ethnic background in its origin. You just have to recognize that.
“It’s not necessarily that I’m going to Tontitown, so I’ve got to have this standing of Italian heritage or anything. Really, it’s been sort of slow and steady, let the people get to know me and I get to know them, and then we’ll take this journey together. And that would be my philosophy, no matter where I lived.”
In governance, however, tradition sometimes clashes with progress. As Arkansas’ northwest quadrant continues to grow rapidly, Tontitown has enjoyed some of the area’s largesse. Mayor Colvin notes the small-town atmosphere and low property taxes have made the town an ideal location for many moving into the area.
“After the last four or five years, we’re coming into our own with the amount of growth that we see here in Tontitown,” he said. “We’ve just exploded over the last five years. We’ve doubled in population, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down anytime soon.
“We’re centrally located in Northwest Arkansas. We’re a stone’s throw to one of the nation’s growing airports. We’re just an hour to an hour and a half away from Tulsa, which is a major hub. And we’re still one of the lowest tax bases in Arkansas at 3.25 percent millage rate.”
But for all of that, new thinking is sometimes slow to take root here, which Colvin sees as missed opportunity.
“I walk a tightrope, some days, trying to do my best as mayor trying to grow our city. Obviously, if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” he said. “I would like to see Tontitown to be part of the big five [with Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville] when people mention Northwest Arkansas. I think there’s potential for that when we look to the west of our city. There’s nine or 10 miles of open space that’s unclaimed out in the world. The new addition of the highway that is wrapping around our city will help and assist us in the future growth of this town.
“We have folks that are sitting on our city council that don’t want it to change, and I don’t blame them for wanting to keep Tontitown the same. Unfortunately, I’m also enough of a realist to know that we’re either going to have to change, or we’re going to get run over by change, whether it’s our town or some other town around us that comes in to take over the city. We have to be on guard and always looking to the future of what our city hopes to be one day.”
Colvin said these matters aside, Tontitown is enthusiastically open for business and new residents.
“I think every town has these growing pains. Growth is good, but it’s also hard. Overall, the horizon looks pretty bright for our city. ” he said. “What I would want people to know is in real terms, we are the Mayberry of the future. The folks that live here, when you walk into the local coffee shops, still want to know who you are and what your name is. If somebody’s looking to move to a welcoming small town that is near lots of growth and lots of energy, Tontitown is where it’s at.”