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Central Standard

The Man Behind The Meals: Get To Know Kansas City Restaurant Critic Charles Ferruzza

Julie Denesha
Charles Ferruzza relaxes on a sofa during a culinary outing at Natasha's Mulberry & Mott in Kansas City, Mo.

Many of us tag along with Pitch restaurant critic Charles Ferruzza on his restaurant adventures, enjoying his witty asides as much as his souffle descriptions. He hints at his life story when it's relevant to what's happening at the table, but for the most part, the man behind the meals is a mystery.

When Ferruzza sat down with Central Standard’s Gina Kaufmann for a Portrait Session, he said one thing he’s not is a “foodie.”

“I am not even quite sure what the definition of a “foodie” is,” Ferruzza said. “I find that people who are really passionate about food in kind of a neophyte way, they tend to romanticize food, and fetishize - if that’s the right word - food.”

Having been a server for decades, his familiarity with the restaurant industry makes him too much of a realist.

“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. And, you know, when you’ve had that kind of reality check, it’s hard to be romantic about pancakes,” Ferruzza said.

Early experiences in restaurants

Ferruzza grew up in Indianapolis in the 1950s and 60s (His age now? Between 50 and death, he says.). 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.”

He may have learned the first two, but was surrounded by bad influences, and loved it.

Going to Kansas City

After getting a degree in journalism, Ferruzza lived briefly in Philadelphia and New York City before joining a friend in Kansas City.

“I clicked with Kansas City right away,” Ferruzza said, “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.”

Where else to absorb the town’s seedy history but drinking in bars, which somehow led him to the Missouri Valley Room at the Kansas City Public Library. Between that, a job at the now- defunct Johnson County Sun, and a decades-long relationship with broadcaster Walt Bodine, Ferruzza developed quite a storehouse of knowledge about Kansas City and its history.

He continued serving tables at some legendary local establishments (the Athena, anyone?), and began writing restaurant reviews at the Sun (in addition to book reviews, theater reviews and movie reviews).

Writing reviews

Restaurants are the most challenging reviews to write, Ferruzza says, because the experience is highly personal and changes daily.

“The experience that you have in a restaurant at 7 o’clock on a Saturday night could be the exact opposite experience that the person at the next table is having, even if you have the same server,” Ferruzza said.

That’s part of why he takes dining companions with him when he writes reviews; another reason is that they can order a range of dishes.

As for “stars,” Ferruzza rejects them in his reviews at the Pitch. He said there’s no way to measure restaurants like the American and Town Topic along the same scale. You have to leave your perceptions at the door.

“If you don’t approach it with all senses open … then you’re doing everybody an injustice: the restaurants, the servers and the reader,” he said.

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with the compelling personalities who populate our area. Each conversational portrait is paired with a photographic portrait.

Eds. note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Ferruzza's father as a Sicilian immigrant. He was born in Buffalo, New York.

Central Standard portrait sessions
People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.