The new pizzeria on the Country Club Plaza, Coal Vines Pizza & Wine Bar -- this week's Cafe review -- made me wonder how many Fat City readers can remember the first time they ever tasted pizza in a restaurant?
I can, because I remember -- and I was a child of the 1960s -- how different a hot, bubbling restaurant pizza tasted compared with the frozen discs or the Chef Boyardee "pizza mix" that my mother would bake at home. There wasn't such a thing as "gourmet" pizza in those days. In fact, many Midwestern Italian restaurants offered their pizza not as the main event but as something more like a side dish, something to eat with lasagna, garlic-broiled steaks or pan-fried chicken.
Local caterer Robert Salsman moved to Kansas City more than four decades ago and recalls the first pizza he ordered in town: "It was at Gaetano's, an Italian restaurant downtown on Eighth Street. The pizza was delicious."
I have a copy of Gaetano's menu from 1976. There were only seven ways to order a pie at that restaurant: plain, with cheese and tomato; with green pepper added; with homemade sausage added; with mushrooms added; with anchovies added; with pepperoni added; or with all of the above on one pizza. A large "everything" pizza cost $3.65. Today, that's the price of a large soft drink. (To put that price into perspective, though, Gaetano's offered a complete "Special Italian Dinner" with an antipasto salad, lasagna, braciola and a side of spaghetti for $4.95).
"In those days, you couldn't find a pizza in Kansas City that didn't have anchovies," says Leonard Mirabile, the co-owner of Jasper's Ristorante in south Kansas City. "Now you can hardly find a pizza in town that has one."
Leonard Mirabile says his father, the original Jasper Mirabile, served pizza when he opened his modest Italian restaurant at 75th Street and Wornall in 1954, but he realized that the Neapolitan pie wasn't so good for his business.
"Customers could get a small pizza in those days for 85 cents. If that's all they ordered, instead of eating a pizza with a steak or fried chicken or pasta -- we were losing money if we couldn't turn the tables. That's why my dad and Paul Silvio opened the first Antonio's Pizza at 43rd and Main Street in 1957. So people could go to a restaurant that only served pizza. You could eat in or carry it out. And a large pizza cost about a dollar."
Other pizza joints, many of them franchise operations like Shakey's or Pizza Hut, came later, as did locally owned, family-friendly pizza operations like the Pizza Shoppe and Fun House Pizza. Many youngsters in the metro got their first taste of cheesy pizza at these restaurants.
Leonard Mirabile and his brother, chef Jasper Mirabile Jr., still sell pizza from the casual dining venue, Marco Polo, at the front of the Jasper's restaurant space. But Leonard misses the old days, he says, when pizza tasted like pizza.
"There was a reason that the pizza of our youth tasted a little greasy," Leonard says. "The ingredients they used were real: real house-made sausage -- not a precooked product. And real cheese. Why would anyone want low-fat cheese on a pizza? It's not really cheese! And this deconstructed product they sell as pepperoni now!"
In the 1970s, an Italian restaurant named Il Pagliacci at 400 Wyandotte (it was torn down years ago) served a large "Around the World" pizza with anchovies, pepperoni, Italian sausage, hamburger, mushrooms, green peppers, black olives and Canadian bacon for $5.25.
If patrons wanted something like goat cheese, fresh basil, sun-dried tomatoes or house-made ricotta on their pie, they'd have to wait for the next century.