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|KCMag.com: KANSAS CITY'S LITTLE ITALY|
STORY BY Kelly Cannon
Most American cities have a neighborhood known as Little Italy, where you’re sure to have a spectacular dinner of spaghetti and meatballs with a glass of inexpensive Chianti as hits by the Chairman of the Board (Ol’ Blue Eyes) play in the background. Lucky for us, Kansas City’s version of Little Italy offers that and so much more.
In Columbus Park, wanderers will find not only great Italian food, but also Vietnamese restaurants, delis, hipster hangouts, art galleries and the oldest Kansas City celebration of St. Joseph’s Day.
You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the green, white and red fire hydrants painted to mimic il Tricolore, the Italian flag. The green represents Italy’s plains and hills, the white stands for the snow-capped Alps and the red memorializes the blood spilled during wars for independence. Or, if you’re Catholic, you might recognize the green, white and red as hope, faith and charity, the three theological virtues that allow man to share in God’s nature.
The members of Holy Rosary Catholic Church (911 Missouri Ave.), the vibrant center of the Columbus Park neighborhood for more than 100 years, would certainly recognize those virtues. In the late 19th century, the Italian immigrants who had settled in the area petitioned the church for an Italian priest. Father Ferdinando Santipolo was sent in 1890. In five years, the parish raised $183 and Father Santipolo donated $250 to buy the lot on the corner of Missouri Avenue and Campbell Street, where the building now stands.
Today, the church has the most statues of Madonnas and saints of any church in the diocese, most donated by families who wanted to bring the patron saint of their previous Italian homes to their new American city.
Another tradition they brought with them is the St. Joseph’s table, which is still celebrated annually. Sicilian legend tells of a terrible year when rain was scarce, crops were failing and people were starving. The Sicilians turned to one of their favorite saints, Joseph, to pray for his kindness. When the rains came, they honored him with a beautiful white-draped altar covered in their best fruits, grains and vegetables.
The tradition is now carried on at Holy Rosary by the descendents of those first Italian immigrants and the Vietnamese, Cuban and Mexican populations that have followed. On March 19, everyone is invited to Scalabrini Hall (910 Pacific Avenue) to enjoy the delicious food that volunteers spend days making.
Because it falls during Lent, no meat is served, but everything is so good you won’t even miss it. Pasta Milanese is the main dish, and it’s accompanied by salad, bread and everyone’s favorites: homemade cannoli, cakes and cookies. Because the food is meant to be displayed before being eaten, it looks as good as it tastes, and many people stop by the day before to view the scrumptious smorgasbord that includes cakes shaped like lambs, Bibles and crosses, and breads shaped like Jesus’ crown of thorns, St. Joseph’s cane and the Sacred Heart.
If you can’t make it to Columbus Park on March 19, there’s plenty of food to explore the rest of the month. A Kansas City institution, Garozzo’s Ristorante (526 Harrison St.), is known as the birthplace of Chicken Spiedini ($18), but the rest of its menu is just as impressive. I like to start with the stuffed artichoke, move on to the Tortelloni Gina ($18) and finish with tiramisu ($5.95) and a café Garozzo (a most delicious alcoholic coffee drink with hints of orange, mint and chocolate). I also love the fact that it remains true to its family roots and offers specials like the High School Dance Menu, a $25 prix fixe for kids who are making their own Kansas City memories.
Pandolfi’s Deli (538 Campbell St.) is another Italian-American, family-owned business serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their meatball sandwich ($8) is my favorite in Kansas City, and the muffaletta ($7.99) is stupendous (and also the special on Mondays). Fridays mean made-to-order frittatas ($6.99), where you can choose from caprese, muffaletta or ham-and-cheese, or make your own from a wide variety of fresh ingredients.
The menu at Vietnam Café (522 Campbell St.) is extensive, and the always-crowded dining room is a testament to how good everything is. I like the pho ga (chicken-noodle soup), mixed banh mi (baguette sandwich) and da chanh (lemonade). The banh tom (fried sweet potatoes and shrimp) also is delicious, and the goi cuon (fresh rolls) are addictive. If you’re going for lunch, get there before noon or you’ll have to wait for a table.
Happy Gillis (549 Gillis St.) is the kind of place where you linger over your food because it feels comfortable, like you’re eating at home with friends—if your home came with fantastic food and an attentive wait staff. It’s open for early birds and lunch patrons, along with special dinners once a month. The soups are comforting and delicious and change according to what’s in season. In addition to having a fascinating name, the Cello-esque BLT (a BLT topped with two eggs, $9) is worth the trip.
Columbus Park is a fascinating section of the city that holds onto its Italian roots while making room for new traditions and cultural influences. All that’s required is a little free time and a craving to try something new and experience the old.