Italian food. Those two words may bring up images of a pasta dish with red sauce, or perhaps a thick square of lasagna. Throw in a glass of wine, and you're set for a cold winter night.
Some local chefs are also putting a creative spin on the cuisine. From old-school favorites to some new takes, our food critics on KCUR’s Central Standard searched out the best Italian food in and around Kansas City.
Here are their recommendations:
Mary Bloch, Around the Block:
- Bella Napoli — Pugliese pizza. With caramelized onion, mozzarella and spicy oil.
- Bella Napoli — Pasta Amatriciana. Rigatoni with pancetta, garlic and spicy tomato sauce.
- The Rieger. I usually have a hard time deciding which pasta to order because I honestly usually have a hard time visualizing some of the ingredients that chef Howard Hanna puts together. Like duck confit with apricot, chestnuts and mushrooms. But I’ve never been disappointed; they are all great. I tend to gravitate to the more veggie-centric ones.
- The Antler Room. All the pasta dishes are incredibly interesting and creative. Current favorites include rigatoni with duck confit and cavatelli with braised lamb.
- Michael Smith's Finding Guido. He’s revamped his menu to a heavy Italian focus, and he is offering a five-course pasta tasting. He serves all different kinds of pasta, from gnocchi to radiatori. They’ve got spicy ones, they’ve got wild boar — it just runs the gamut. Any ingredient you can envision is in all of these pastas.
- Carmen’s Café — fettuccine al diablo. Served with shrimp, mussels, clams, squid and a spicy tomato sauce in a huge bowl.
- Lidia’s — grilled octopus. With warm potatoes, caper, red onion and Gaeta olives.
- Lidia’s — bistecca. Bone-in ribeye steak with rosemary sea salt. Served with garlic fried potatoes.
- Jasper’s — linguine fra diavolo con scampi. Pasta with a spicy tomato sauce with chili peppers, garlic and shrimp.
- Jasper’s — baked lasagna. Layered with ricotta cheese, Italian sausage and Jasper’s tomato sauce.
- Story — lobster tagliatelle. It’s a perennial favorite; served with Swiss chard and burrata. I also love the risottos and octopus.
Jenny Vergara, Feast Magazine:
- Dominic’s Casual Italian. Owner Dominic Cuccia started with a small drive-thru stand next to a car wash that he owns on North Oak Trafficway, and he now has two locations. This is the place to have it your way. Mix and match five different types of pasta with three different sauces that he makes from scratch daily from his mother’s recipes. Spedini bowls with chicken or shrimp can be topped with your choice of sauce. The drive-thru is located on the side of the building, and you can order online ahead of time.
- Cascone’s Italian Restaurant on North Oak Trafficway. Since 1954, the Cascones have been serving up their family’s Italian recipes, like so many other Italian families in the area. The menu is overwhelming with so many old-school choices, but some standouts here are veal limonata, homemade gnocchi with ricotta cheese in vodka sauce and slow-cooked pork neck bones in sugo (or Sunday gravy, as it’s commonly known).
- Papa Keno’s Crossroads. French chef Philippe Lechevin opened his second Papa Keno’s location in the former Snow & Co. space. The menu includes a variety of specialty pizzas, Sicilian pizza, thick-crust deep-dish pizza, calzones, salads and sandwiches on fresh-baked bread. Get "The Industry," which has double pepperoni and double extra cheese.
- Tower Tavern. One of my favorite hidey-holes in the Union Hill neighborhood. It serves a wide variety of sandwiches, pizzas and strombolis. Get the Italian beef sandwich or the pepperoni stromboli served with fries, pasta salad or housemade potato chips because everyone needs more carbs with their carbs. Order a beer for the perfect carb trifecta!
- Mario’s in Westport. Sadly, there isn’t much time to enjoy Mario’s. Owner John Waid plans to close this location at the end of this year. But if you are a fan of their meatball grinders like I am, you’ll want to make one last trip in to get a great grinder. It’s an Italian roll that’s stuffed with meat, cheese and sauce, then toasted. Eat warm!
- Italian Delight by Avelluto. This place is so charming, from the decor to the Avelluto family who owns and runs the place. It is like dining in a large Italian dining hall during a huge Italian wedding. Loud and busy with solid Italian food favorites. Order Chicken Champagne or any of the tasty and delicious salads. The eggplant parmigiana is also good. They serve wine at dinner and have a tasty tiramisu.
- 715 Restaurant in Lawrence. Few other places Italian places manage to keep it old-school and modern all at the same time. From breaking down whole animals to making pasta by hand, 715 is a great place to stop in for lunch or dinner, or just to grab a drink with a friend. At dinner, get the classic lasagna bolognese or the Italian sausage pizza with heritage pork sausage, fennel cream, crispy leeks and tarragon.
Charles Ferruzza, 435 Magazine:
My father’s parents were born in Sicily at the turn of the last century. They could never afford to eat in a restaurant and they would have considered it a ridiculous waste of money to do so. My grandmother was an excellent cook who baked her own breads and pastries, raised her own chickens and slaughtered them in the backyard, canned fruits and vegetables — all in a city on the “wrong side of the tracks.”
- The restaurant meals closest in spirit to my Grandmother’s cooking in Kansas City include Lidia’s Kansas City (owner Lidia Bastianich, an Italian-born immigrant herself, has a sensitive pulse on the journey from her childhood roots from the formerly Italian city of Pula, now considered Croatia to America), with its distinctive dishes and excellent wine list.
- Also: Jasper’s Restaurant, which has evolved over the years from a neighborhood café serving pasta, steaks and fried chicken to, later, an elegant fine dining venue, to its current incarnation — which melds many details from its past into a casual dining experience with first-rate cuisine and many sophisticated touches. Recommendations at Lidia’s and Jasper’s: any veal or chicken dish. Things that taste like they took all day to cook are kind of a signature of both places.
- Anthony’s on Grand. This restaurant totally captures the essence of what an Italian restaurant was like, post-World War II, when many U.S. GIs got their first taste of “real” Mediterranean cuisine (including pizza) after they had been stationed overseas in the 1940s. In the four decades since the Spino family opened the original Anthony’s as a lunch counter, it has become a touchstone restaurant for diners who still long for that experience of home cooking, Sicilian-style, with generous servings and modest prices. It’s one of those Italian restaurants where you walk in hungry and you waddle out fat and full.
Here are some neighborhood restaurants of varying vintage and style, but all with a similar mission: Come in hungry, leave full:
- Carmen’s Café. It’s a great neighborhood joint. I’ve never had a bad meal there. The chopped Italian salad is wonderful.
- Osteria Il Centro. Whoever is cooking has a judicious hand on the garlic and spices because it’s perfect.
- Bella Napoli
- Cascone’s. There are some really classic old-school dishes there. They have a really wonderful lasagna; it can make three meals.
- Ragazza Food & Wine. It’s a little family-owned place with a good wine list.
- V’s Italiano Ristorante.
- Bella Napoli — gnocchi. The owner makes gnocchi every Thursday morning with his best friend, a surgeon. It’s really exceptional; very light and delicious. Served on Thursdays only.
- Anna’s Oven. It’s not typically Italian, but they do Italian specials. Very good lasagna and a great wine list.
- Cupini’s — lemon chicken panini.
- Cupini’s — gnocchi in pesto sauce. My favorite thing. It’s substantial without being heavy. For dessert, get the zuccotto.
- Venezia Italian Restaurant in Smithville. Owned by a family from Italy. I’m not a big Italian food connoisseur; this was life-changing. I like the seafood alfredo. The sauce is creamy but not overpowering. There’s also a solid thick lasagna. Everything is good, from the bread to the dipping sauces to the tiramisu.
- Jovito’s Italian Café and Bakery. On cold days, there’s a really good meatball grinder. I also like the spicy chicken penne dish (with cream sauce, chili flakes and a little red sauce). The owner bakes all the cookies, brownies, gooey butter bars, cannoli, Italian wedding cookies.
- The North End — fried chicken. Served just on Saturdays. It’s just really delicious. This is a great place, and as you wait for your chicken, you can still order lovely Italian dishes like eggplant or ravioli.
- The Rieger — Italian head cheese with polenta. Not on the regular menu; this was on special. The head cheese (braised bits of pig head in a pork gelatin) was sliced thin and served on a green polenta that was completely herbed out of its mind. The head cheese melted on the polenta and made a silky buttery sauce. Really outstanding.