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Central Standard

Food Critics: The Best Italian Food In Kansas City

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Italian food isn't just pasta in red sauce or hearty slabs of lasagna.

From fish that's served very simply to bucatini alla gricia (pasta with pork jowl), Kansas City's Italian restaurants range from the old-school to places that veer towards lighter fare.

On KCUR's Central Standard, the Food Critics discussed the difference between Italian and Italian-American food — then they searched for the best Italian food in and around Kansas City.

Here are their recommendations:

Mary Bloch, Around the Block:

  • Mozzarella salad at Jasper’s. I love the mozzarella salad that is prepared tableside in the summer featuring Kurlbaum’s heirloom tomatoes. They actually make the mozzarella in front of you; they wheel it over, they have the hot water and curds. And those tomatoes with the fresh mozzarella and luscious olive oil are all I need.
  • Brussels sprouts at Pizzabella. The wood-roasted sprouts with pancetta, almonds, cranberry, vinaigrette and cheese will turn any sprout-hater into a lover of them. Each bite is a revelation and I can easily make a meal of this dish.
  • The Caesar salad at Lidia’s. My favorite rendition of this salad in the city. Love the sliced croutons from leftover crusty bread, the dressing has just the right amount of garlic and the salad is perfectly coated with cheese. A splash of oil and vinegar finishes the prep.
  • Any pasta dish at The Rieger Hotel & Grill Exchange. Chef Howard Hanna does wonders with fresh pasta. The current menu item is bucatini alla gricia, with Burgers' jowl bacon, extra virgin olive oil, Pecorino Romano and black pepper. The pasta dishes are always seasonal; love the summer vegetable ones, too.
  • Chicken Marsala at Osteria Il Centro: chicken breast sautéed in Marsala wine (a sweet wine) with garlic and mushrooms. Served with rosemary-garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. A well-executed, lovely dish.
  • Michael Smith does a Thursday night Italian menu. It’s different every week, but he always focuses on homemade pasta. I think he’s an Italian chef in disguise because he really knows how to treat the ingredients.
  • For dessert, I like the biscotti at Lidia’s (Italian cookies; some are almond, some chocolate). It’s a nice light way to end the meal.

Charles Ferruzza, The Pitch:

  • Jasper's is a microcosm of the history of Italian-American cuisine. When the late restaurateur Jasper Mirabile, Sr. — a product of Kansas City's North End — opened his first namesake restaurant in Waldo, it wasn't very different from the other small, family-owned Italian restaurants in the city: steaks, chicken, pasta, garlic bread. By the 1970s, however, Jasper's was one of the city's few fancy dining rooms, with tuxedo-clad waiters and dishes prepared tableside. By the millennium, the Mirabile family changed course again and became more accessible, creating a menu that's both innovative and old school. It's one of my favorite places to go because the food is so good. And the service is great — it’s really old-school; they remember you. I really like the fish dishes there because the fish is so fresh. And the fish dishes are very, very simple; not fussy. It’s the only restaurant in Kansas City (that I know of) that still has a dessert cart, where they wheel the cart over and it’s three levels of desserts. The desserts are still made there, and they’re fresh tasting, they’re really delicious and really fattening.
  • Café Italia is a family-owned restaurant — created by childhood friends Guy Tamburello and Paul Anselmo — that moved from the Northland to Parkville several years ago. It was a good move; the location is better, the food is still excellent. They do a lot of homemade pastas; they do traditional Italian (what I call old-school Italian) with some version of steaks. They make their own gelato and have great desserts; the tiramisu is mind-boggling. It reminds me a lot of a Little Italy restaurant.
  • Cascone's. I love this old-school Italian restaurant because it reminds me, more than any other restaurant in the city, of the kind of places my parents patronized when I was a child. Best cannelloni in town.
  • For atmosphere: Anthony’s. I like restaurants where you open the door and suddenly you’re in 1966. The lighting is dim; there are a lot of tchotchkes on the walls. It’s classic Italian-American cuisine and it’s really good. When you’re in the mood for a great 1960s Italian-American restaurant, it would head my list. I think they still have Roma bread, and that used to be, for Kansas Citians, the ne plus ultra of any Italian restaurant; they had to have Roma bread and cold butter.

Bonjwing Lee, Ulterior Epicure:

  • The food at Lidia’s is consistently good. It’s a different look at Italian food. Lidia Bastianich comes from the northeast part of Italy, from the Friuli region, so she brings the influence of nearby Austria. I still love the house made pastas at Lidia’s, and I particularly like the more Germanic/Austrian-influenced dishes, like the stuffed cabbage and sausages. The restaurant itself is very big with high ceilings; it’s very open, and there’s a celebratory feeling about the space. It’s not intimate; you feel like you’re having a night out that’s special and nice.
  • For Italian pantry items, I love Bella Napoli. They’ve got a lot of imported things: lots of olives, canned goods, dried pastas.
  • Does pizza count? If so, I do like the pizzas at Pizzabella. They’re wood-fired, with sort of the blistered, knobby crust that I like, and I like the toppings. And I like Johnny Jo’s; they reheat really well. So at lunchtime, you can go in and buy it by the slice, and they reheat it for you, and you would never know (that it’s reheated).

Listener Recommendations:

  • Italian Delight is owned by brothers from New York. It’s kind of the opposite of fine dining; you have to stand in line to order and they bring the food to you. The food is really consistently good; they have everything from meatballs and spaghetti to pizza to spinach lasagna (on Friday nights only). The pasta e fagioli soup is really good (it’s a bean soup with pasta and vegetables), and they even have tiramisu.
  • Il Lazzarone does an incredible Neapolitan pizza; it’s one of a handful of restaurants in the country that’s officially certified. The ingredients are fresh, very simple. I like the margherita pizza and the bruschetta; the flavors pop.
  • The food is absolutely unbelievable at Ragazza and the atmosphere is New York. The steaks, pork chops and Italian food are all really good.
  • At Bella Napoli, the owner makes the gnocchi by hand and the sauces are simple.
  • I like the ambiance at Bella Napoli; it’s very casual. Love the carpaccio on grilled radicchio; it’s a beef carpaccio with a little balsamic. I also like the spaghetti carbonara. And I think the tiramisu is probably the best I’ve ever had.
  • If you can get in the River Club (a private club), the veal is the best. It’s paper-thin and very simply served with a couple of capers.
  • Villa Capri has a great eggplant parmesan. It also has some of the best cannoli.
  • For Italian fast food: The best Italian sub is at Giovanni’s. And Mo’s has great arancini (rice balls).
  • Everything I’ve had at Pezzettino’s has been delish!
  • Pezzettino’s atmosphere is lovely — full of light. Delicious desserts.
  • Love Jasper's linguine and clams! Great sauce.
  • I grew up in the Northeast. When Jennie’s closed and my family moved to the Northland, Café Italia was a comfort. Good memories.
  • For the atmosphere, V’s was impressive.
  • Thank goodness for Leo's Pizza — best St. Louis-style pizza in Missouri. Mmmm, Provel...
  • Anthony’s for linguine with clams, eggplant parmesan, chicken parmesan (either as a dinner or sandwich with fries), and most of its red sauce pasta.

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.

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Central Standard Best Food KCFood & Drink