Kansas City journalist and bon vivant Charles Ferruzza, known to newspaper and radio audiences for his restaurant reviews that were infused with a deep knowledge of the city’s history and idiosyncrasies of its high- and low-society denizens, died early Tuesday. He was 62.
A frequent guest on KCUR’s Central Standard food critics panel, Ferruzza’s role as a radio personality dated back to the days of The Walt Bodine Show.
"I clicked with Kansas City right away," Ferruzza told KCUR's Gina Kaufmann.
Ferruzza grew up in Indianapolis and lived briefly in Philadelphia and New York City before joining a friend in Kansas City in 1980. "I thought it was a lively city, certainly a lot more interesting than Indianapolis, and a lot less snobbish. It had kind of a dark underbelly, and I liked that, too."
Kaufmann says Ferruzza was "knowledgeable, effortlessly funny, totally unpretentious in his taste and he had a wicked wit."
"Charles had a way with readers and listeners. His spontaneous charm and unforgettable one-liners are the kinds of things that can’t be taught," she says. "He was a natural."
Behind the scenes, Kaufmann adds, "there was more to him. He saw younger journalists grow up and start families and he delighted in becoming part of those families. There’s a lot of talk these days of a 'chosen family,' and Charles took a lot of pride in the family of writers, artists and misfits he loved."
"We definitely were his family," says his long time friend Lou Jane Temple, a chef and fellow food critic who regularly appeared with Ferruzza on The Walt Bodine Show. "People in the world of radio, food and writing were those he connected most to and fell back on."
Temple said relationships in general could be complicated for Ferruzza. He was highly sensitive, she says, which made him vulnerable.
"It was hard for him to plough through life the way we have to do," she says, "to take the sometimes absurd battles that are thrown at us and keep plugging away."
There was something "magnetic and enigmatic about his personality," says KCUR reporter Laura Ziegler, who was a longtime friend. "One of Charles' defining features was his deep — dare I say sexy — speaking voice, which he never seemed to raise."
Ferruzza was known for his aggressively anti-"foodie" food writing, informed by his own experience as a server.
“I can’t romanticize food because I’ve had to make it in a restaurant, I’ve had to serve it in a restaurant, I’ve had to clean up vomit in a restaurant,” he once told Kaufmann. “And, you know, when you’ve had that kind of reality check, it’s hard to be romantic about pancakes.”
His restaurant reviews for The Pitch, which he wrote for more than a decade, annoyed some readers, who complained that he spent too much time writing about the conversation between his dining companions or the history of a particular venue’s building or neighborhood. But that was what made his columns a weekly must-read for anyone who cared less about the particulars of the dishes (about which he was plenty knowledgeable) than about the overall experience of dining, with interesting friends, in a lively city.
His interests ran much wider and deeper than food, though. In 2000, he began co-hosting, with his friend Carol Jean Barta, the Anything Goes program Fridays on KKFI 90.1. They encouraged listeners to call in to talk about “local and national celebrities, authors, charlatans, playwrights, ghost hunters, chefs, drag queens, musicians and mixologists, historians and hysterics” — all topics on which he could hold forth with ease.
“Charles brought voices to the airwaves that shared the common peoples stories and has lifted a lot of boats around Kansas City. We loved him for his sharp wit and shall we say, his quick smart-aleck responses,” KKFI Development Director Bill Sundahl says.
Kansas City readers first became familiar with Ferruzza’s bylines in the Johnson County Sun, where he worked as a reporter, theater critic and book reviewer.
With a journalism degree from Butler University in Indianapolis, he landed his first newspaper job when he was hired by Steve Rose, president of Rose Publications and former publisher of The Sun papers, in 1984. Rose calls Ferruzza one of the most talented writers he's ever hired.
"Charles had a flair I rarely see," Rose says. "He'd get the facts right like a reporter but he had a very sensitive antenna. He picked up on little things, on the color of a story, and had an uncanny ability to capture people in his writing."
In spite of his knotty connection to restaurant work, Rose says, Ferruzza did not like to write bad reviews.
"He had a talent for being able to write a review and even if he didn't like the place, he'd tell you they had nice silverware," Rose says. "He could pluck out at least one thing that wouldn't leave the place devastated."
But when Ferruzza did like a place, the restaurateur would often frame his review and hang it on the wall with pride.
His early life
He grew up in Indianapolis in the 1950s and ’60s. His father was a liquor salesman and his mother didn’t like to cook. As a result, they ate out a lot at restaurants. Ferruzza’s parents encouraged him to work in restaurants as a teen, thinking he’d learn discipline, diplomacy and be “shielded from bad influences.”
Bad influences eventually gave him much of his best writing material, which was not widely published but shared with audiences who attended the periodic “Recovery Readings” he sometimes helped organize at venues such as the Writers Place, where he served on the board of directors.
“All of it, the edge and grace, was a byproduct of his strict Catholic upbringing,” Ziegler notes. “He told me he prayed and said the Rosary daily and went to Mass as often as possible. At the same time, he was an avid follower of astrology and checked his horoscope daily.”
Ferruzza never properly learned how to type. But the whole country got a taste of the kind of journalism he churned out with just his two index fingers when his Pitch essay, “A Sugar Binge,” was reprinted in Da Capo Press’s Best Food Writing 2007. There, Ferruzza beautifully mixed stories from his own childhood with a greatest hits of Kansas City’s candy-making industry.
October always induced flashbacks of his early Halloweens, he wrote.
That kind of obsessive thinking is the reason that I have to be careful about what I buy to give out on Halloween night. If it’s stuff that I like, such as those enticing little Kit- Kat bars, I’ll plow through an entire bag before the first kid rings my doorbell.
Thus, I do my best to find something unattractive — say, the milky orange-and-cream lollipops that I discovered at the Dollar Store (or any other hard candy). I had four giant bags of that stuff last year but ran out before 8 p.m. Just like the voracious zombies in Night of the Living Dead, the treaters who had descended on Brookside kept knocking on the door until, in a state of desperation, I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a handful of square ramen-noodle packages and threw them into the bags.
A couple of kids tossed them back at me, but most of the greedy brats just assumed that ramen was Japanese for big candy and thanked me so profusely that I was overcome with guilt. At the next lull in the begging action, I locked my storm door, turned out the lights and crawled under the blankets.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Steve Rose.
C.J. Janovy is KCUR 89.3's digital managing editor. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy. Laura Ziegler contributed reporting to this story. You can reach her on twitter @laurazig or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.