Fast-food newcomers can't match Kansas City's venerable Italian restaurants.

A Pizza the Action 

Fast-food newcomers can't match Kansas City's venerable Italian restaurants.

A friend of mine once told me how a savvy local entrepreneur used to make the delicacy called "Pizza on a Stick," which she sold at fairs and festivals. She started with a hot dog, of course, because every Italian dish that Americans co-opt gets Americanized in the worst possible way -- such as tiramisu made with cream cheese instead of mascarpone. Or that staple of school cafeterias all over the country, a gloppy hamburger-and-spaghetti casserole called "Johnny Marzetti."

And now that lasagna has become as all-American as tacos and crab rangoon, it's turned into a fast-food treat. Recently I paid $4.19 for the lasagna dinner at Mr. Goodcents Subs and Pastas (6304 Brookside Plaza). The kid behind the counter went into the kitchen, opened the industrial-size refrigerator, took out a cold chunk of lasagna, put it in a plastic dish, and slid it into the microwave oven. Voila! Hot lasagna!

For a few dollars more, you can drive over to Tony's Villa Capri (8126 Metcalf) to get the real, freshly baked stuff, along with a cold iceberg salad in a vinegary dressing, Roma bread, and hot baked yeasty rolls (made from pizza dough) for less than $9 in a setting that's barely changed since Tony Scudiero opened the place in 1961.

What I love most about the Villa Capri is that it looks just like the Italian restaurant where Warren Beatty flirts with Zohra Lampert in Splendor in the Grass (made the same year that Villa Capri opened) -- right down to the vinyl checked tablecloths and the glass parmesan-cheese shakers on the tables.

Villa Capri is one big dining room, with a plastic "stained glass" Schlitz light fixture at one end and a TV in the other (a video of Rebel Without a Cause was playing silently on my last visit). Not a pasta dish on the menu goes for more than nine bucks, and you can get Southern fried chicken and fried shrimp too. It's a classic postwar "Eye-talian" restaurant (where the sauce isn't spicy and spaghetti and meatballs and spumoni are still on the menu), the kind they don't make anymore.

They don't make places like Italian Gardens (110 Baltimore) anymore, either. The family-owned downtown landmark, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this month, has survived the changing fortunes of its once-bustling urban neighborhood with panache.

I dined there recently and was relieved to see that not a thing had changed: The tables are still cloaked with checked vinyl tablecloths, the smoky-voiced waitresses quick and friendly, the minestrone hearty and comforting, the salads piled with onions and pickled beets, the stack of bread still a combination of pumpernickel and soft Roma Italian. And the fettuccine Alfredo is still so decadent, you think you'll pass out before you finish it.

Fans of the restaurant can still register for 75 prizes before the birthday contest ends this Friday at noon, when the winning names will be drawn in the lobby. For more information on the 75th anniversary specials, call 816-221-9311.

And Italian Gardens still serves a sensational pizza, which is available in a variety of incarnations -- but not, I'm happy to say, on a stick.

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