After 10 years in Midtown, Ragazza has grown from 'a mid-life crisis' to a loyal following
Laura Norris opened the Italian comfort food joint in 2013 with recipes handed down from her mother. After surviving through the pandemic on carryout-only, Norris expanded last year with Enzo, a Mediterranean bistro, in the River Market.
Family is baked into the core of Laura Norris’ restaurants, she shared, from the Italian recipes served at Ragazza in Westport to the brother-sister duo running the new Enzo Wine Bar and Bistro together in the River Market.
She opened Ragazza, which now sits at the corner of 43rd and Main streets, in 2013 and Enzo — in the former City Market Bo Lings Chinese Restaurant — with her brother, Grant Norris, at the end of 2022.
A visit to the old South Bronx neighborhood of her grandfather — who was originally from Salerno, Italy — inspired Norris’ to dive into the restaurant business and leave the world of community development and nonprofits. While working with New York-based Local Initiative Support Organization and traveling for meetings, Norris shared, she took a photo of a deli in the South Bronx.
“I had it on my bulletin board for 20 years,” she explained. “I just took the bulletin board to every job that I had. I was like, ‘Someday, I’m going to do this.’ And then the opportunity provided itself.”
With funding from family and friends, as well as the Women’s Employment Network, Norris opened Ragazza 10 years ago in a tiny space on Broadway Boulevard. It had bar seating and just eight tables.
“It was sort of a mid-life crisis,” she joked.
Flavor profile of family
Ragazza — which now hosts monthly wine dinners and “Sunday Vinyl Sunday” brunches — serves Italian comfort food favorites like lasagne, chicken piccata, eggplant parmesan, and spaghetti and meatballs.
“Our red sauce is dynamite,” she added.
The recipes, Norris shared, are handed down from her mother, whose photo is featured on one of the walls at Ragazza. Her mom, she noted, was an exceptional cook like her grandmother, who hailed from Salina, an island north of Sicily.
“Of course, Italians never write anything down,” she said. “I started cooking for my friends in college and never really stopped. But I don’t consider myself a chef.”
The restaurant was originally called Cucina Della Ragazza — which means “girl’s kitchen,” Norris said, and was a nod to her mother.
“I was trying to find a way to honor my mom, like ‘daughter’s kitchen’ or something like that,” she explained. “But the Italian word doesn’t work very well in English.”
In early 2019, Ragazza expanded into its current Westport location. Norris said it was the support of community — who are like family — who helped it survive being closed six months for renovations.
“I thought I was gonna lose everything,” she shared. “It was horrible. But what’s cool about Kansas City — which wouldn’t have happened anywhere else, I don’t think, at least for me — was that other restaurant owners let me use their kitchens to do catering and to keep my kitchen staff.”
Right after celebrating one year at the new location, the pandemic hit. And once again, the community came to the rescue, she continued, noting diners shifted to carry out only.
“We have cultivated a very, very loyal customer base,” she added. “And they really helped emotionally, but also financially by continuing to order.”
People love the comfort food, she noted, but they also indulge in the welcoming environment.
“People come in here and they’re hugging each other,” she added.
Adding to the menu
When Norris moved Ragazza to Westport, she said, she thought about keeping the smaller, original location on Broadway and turning it into a wine bar. But it wasn’t until she was approached about her ideal location in the River Market opening up, that she took the leap and decided to open Enzo.
“They wanted a welcoming space and they wanted what Ragazza represents in the community,” she explained.
For this venture, she brought in her brother Grant.
“He’s just always had my back since I started the first Ragazza,” she said, “just always helping and being there when I needed him. I trust him implicitly. So I just said, ‘You want to partner with me on this one because I can’t do it myself?’”
Enzo — which is open for lunch, happy hour, dinner, and brunch and has a patio seating — serves wine and upper Mediterranean cuisine, Norris shared.
“The Italian food is, of course, my recipes,” she added. “I’ve been working on some recipes with a chef friend of mine and then I hired a chef to help develop the rest of them. Our focus is on mostly Greek and Italian, but we also incorporate some French and Spanish.”
Once the KC Streetcar extension is completed, Norris might be one of only a few people to own two restaurants along its Main Street route, she noted.
“I’m anxious to see how that affects Ragazza,” she said. “Luckily, we have a stop.”