There was a time when it was unheard of for an Italian restaurant not to serve spumoni, that slab of Neapolitan with attitude. The confection — two layers of ice cream folded around a center of sweetened whipped cream flavored with rum and toasted nuts, and doused with a rummy sauce — was often the only dessert you could order in such a place, unless the joint also served cannoli. When I was a kid, I disliked both of those staples, which I found visually unappealing and not all that tasty. I still haven't touched the stuff in decades.
Anthony Accurso is right there with me. When the 26-year-old purchased his cousin Joe's namesake Sicilian-American restaurant two years ago, he planned no drastic menu changes until he had run the business for at least a year. But within months, he had given spumoni the boot. His nose wrinkles when he talks about the decision.
"It wasn't just that it was an old-fashioned dessert," he tells me. "It was that almost no one was ordering it."
Accurso's Italian Restaurant was older than Anthony when he and his father purchased the glass-walled pad at 4980 Main. For nearly three decades, Joe Accurso had served familiar Italian comfort dishes: lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine Alfredo. Nothing too fancy, nothing too expensive. It was solid, 1950s-style Italian restaurant cooking, and Kansas Citians always came.
A year after taking ownership, Anthony was ready to put his own imprint on the menu (he had worked in the kitchen as a line cook for a year), and he took a cleaver to Joe's recipe box. Out went the fennel-heavy, house-made sausage. ("It was very labor-intensive," Anthony says, "and our patrons prefer Scimeca's sausage anyway.") Chicken romano, stuffed with a fluffy, demure spinach mousse, joined it at the curb.
Anthony's aggressively different version of chicken romano is a far more macho concoction. You can picture Clint Eastwood eating it in A Fistful of Dollars. It's an oversized breaded breast rolled around a center of romano and bubbly cream cheese mixed with bacon and spinach. It comes blanketed in the familiar, though: the slightly sweet Accurso-family recipe for sugo, one of the few culinary traditions at this restaurant that hasn't changed with the ownership.
Anthony can also take credit for an inventive bruschetta that suggests what the Sistine Chapel's ceiling might have looked like if Mondrian had painted it instead of Michelangelo. But different doesn't necessarily mean better, and so it goes with this bread: chewy baguette topped with a hearty dab of sweet mascarpone cheese, a sheath of pink prosciutto and a few dollops of sticky strawberry jam. I'd probably love the mix of sweet and salty in the morning, with an espresso or two, but it's not a true bruschetta — for one thing, it's not toasted — and it's too eccentric for its own good.
Still, I prefer that bruschetta to the breaded cannelloni on the starters list. It's a prefab vulgarity that doesn't belong among some fine alternatives, notably the wine-simmered mussels, a sumptuously crispy fried calamari, and garlicky seared scallops. (One update I can get behind, though, is Anthony's meatball soup, with its pingpong-ball-sized meatballs; it deserves more glory than its small serving cup allows.)
Anthony and his kitchen crew have added several pasta dishes over the past few months, including a robust and relatively authentic spin on pasta alla carbonara, presented simply as spaghetti in a light, almost translucent cream-and-egg sauce, with a few spoonfuls of very crispy crumbled bacon and vivid green peas. The legendary pasta of the whores, puttanesca (allegedly invented by hungry Roman puttanas by combining pasta, olives and capers in a skillet over a hot plate in their rooms) isn't as spicy at Accurso's as it is elsewhere, but the flavors are complex and seductive, with salty anchovies complemented by sweet currants.
Another new offering, a meatless Southern Italian creation of penne, thrown together in somewhat helter-skelter fashion with ribbons of fresh basil, blocky quarters of marinated artichoke hearts, chopped tomatoes and black olives (sliced thinner than the shroud of Turin), is far more interesting in concept than execution. It's a dish that needs something — maybe goat cheese or shards of parmigiano-reggiano — to lend it weight.
Chicken Marsala, which over the years has made more entrances and exits at this place than Maria Callas in Tosca, is back again, if not in especially memorable fashion. It's now a little miserly — avaro, as they say in Rome — but its smoky, mahogany-colored wine sauce is delightful.
Anthony says he wants to put chicken piccata on his menu (it would be a welcome addition), along with a puttanesca-style pizza and a 12-ounce Kansas City strip. But he's not tinkering with his dessert list anytime soon. With spumoni in permanent exile, he's having great success with house-made chocolate brownies (not very Italian, but by that point in an Accurso's meal, who gives a damn) and his own version of tiramisu. But the best-selling dolce at Accurso's remains his grandmother's light, fluffy cheesecake — one of the best in the city.
"My grandmother put her foot down and will only make two fresh cheesecakes for us a week," Accurso says. "But we sell much more than that, so she came in and taught my kitchen staff to make it to her specifications, and they'll make the rest of the cheesecakes for the week."
He tells me this, and then he's off again to work the room like the old-school Italian restaurateur he really isn't, the kind forever shaking hands, kissing babies, gossiping. Anthony Accurso is in perpetual motion from the moment he walks into the sage-colored room until he leaves, but all that activity seems designed to coax his patrons into the future, at least a little.
"There are still some people who don't know that this is a different Accurso's," he says. "They need to come in and find out that this is my Accurso's."
Trust me, people who venture in just once will see that there's a new Accurso running things at Joe's old place. And he has plenty of charisma, this Anthony. You might resist a few of his dishes, but you'll feel some amore for the kid — and for the best of his food.