Old World Meets New: Kansas City’s Modern Italian Renaissance
By Kathryn Greene
From the opening of new distilleries around town to tried-and-true classic barbecue spots, there’s never been a better time to visit Kansas City. But among the activity, a quiet culinary renaissance has been taking shape—in the form of handmade pasta. While Italian food has been part of Kansas City’s history in longstanding icons like Lidia’s and Garozzo’s, a renewed hunger for the cuisine has restaurants adding inspired specials and, in some cases, transforming their menus to all Italian, all the time.
“There’s just something about Italian food,” says Jasper Mirabile, Jr., chef-owner of Jasper’s. “It brings everyone to the table. It tastes good. It comes with loud conversation and breaking bread.”
After six decades in business, Jasper’s is the oldest family-owned Italian restaurant in Kansas City, but that doesn’t mean it’s not open to reinvention now and again. At Jasper’s, authentic dishes built on tradition have as much room at the table as modern ones do.
In fact, a fall favorite dish invented by Jasper’s is pumpkin ravioli filled with ricotta and topped with béchamel sauce. After being featured on the menu every year for the last 25 years, what started as a modern Italian dish has become a classic in its own right. As Mirabile Jr. sees more restaurants influenced by Italian cooking, he considers it exciting rather than worrisome: “There’s room enough for all of us in Kansas City.”
“To me, pasta is a soul food made by hand and with love, and that never goes out of style,” says Howard Hanna, chef-owner of The Rieger. When Hanna lived in New York at the start of his career, he found a mentor in renowned chef Giovanni Scappin. “He taught me a lot about making pasta, respecting ingredients and how you can put creative touches on things while still keeping them simple and honest.”
Although The Rieger has been offering pasta since its opening in 2010, the recent purchase of an extruder now allows Hanna to make all dry pasta in-house in addition to the fresh pasta shapes. Offerings vary with seasonal menus, but three to five pastas are always available.
“Pasta is extremely versatile and gives us the opportunity to plug in a wide variety of local seasonal ingredients. It's also always popular, and is a very familiar and comforting food for a lot of our guests.”
Since its opening, New American food has been Urban Table’s hallmark. But thanks to guests who were vocal about wanting to be able to order the restaurant’s frequent Italian-inspired specials on any given day, the restaurant has split its concept. Their classic menu is available during the day, but at night, Urban Table is full-blooded Italian.
“We listened to the guests,” says chef Jason Finnerty. “It is about fresh, simple ingredients. People are responding to it.” Some favorites are the Pappardelle, a handmade pasta with smoked bacon lardon, tomato-cream sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano and the Short Rib Ragu with potato gnocchi, chili flakes and ricotta.