I'd completely forgotten similar gatherings from my own childhood, when I attended plenty of homespun Italian wedding receptions and christening parties held in someone's dining room or backyard or, once -- I swear -- in the bride's parents' basement. What those parties lacked in pomp, they made up for in raucousness. My old man always wound up drinking too much and singing "Volare" badly, and then some grizzled crone would toddle out to sing a tearful "Amore, Scusami" and lead everyone in a frenetic "Hokey Pokey." OK, sophisticated it wasn't.
Don't ask me to remember the brides and grooms; they were mostly the offspring of my father's gambling cohorts. But I do remember the food, which wasn't prepared by professional caterers or restaurants but by the relatives of the brides: vats of grilled sausages cooked with peppers and onions, big pans of cheesy lasagna and, if the weather wasn't too hot, that wonderful soup of broth, orzo pasta, tiny meatballs and fresh greens that was called either "Italian Wedding Soup" or pastina in brodo.
I hadn't tasted that soup in decades, certainly not since my Sicilian-born grandmother passed away. But there it was on Scavuzzo's menu, a blast from my past. So of course I sat down, unfurled the gold-colored linen napkin into my lap and ordered it immediately. I was so excited about tasting the soup that I ignored the basket of fresh bread -- slices of rustic walnut loaf and crusty baguette served with little metal tubs of butter, a briny olive tapenade and a spread of white beans and gorgonzola cheese -- until the shiny, brown crock arrived. I lifted the lid, peered down through the steam and marveled at the tiny meatballs floating in a fragrant broth with celery, carrots, Swiss chard, and penne pasta. Just as good as Grandmama's -- maybe better.
My father used to say he could never trust an impulsive gambler or a skinny chef, two reasons to love chubby chef-owner Carl Scavuzzo, who took a calculated gamble opening his namesake restaurant in a 1950s-style brick shopping strip in downtown Overland Park. The former location of the home-style John Francis Restaurant -- which served "Chicken in the Rough" from the 1960s to the 1980s -- has more recently housed restaurant concepts that quickly opened and closed, but Scavuzzo seems to have hit on the right combination of moderately priced classic Italian-American dishes (spaghetti, lasagna, ravioli, fettuccine Alfredo) and his own culinary creations (like a creamy risotto with asparagus and tomato, or shrimp, scallops and calamari sautéed in a spicy puttanesca sauce).
The place was busy each time I visited, with a lot of Overland Park oldsters who like to start out their meal with a cocktail or two. (One patron happily sipped a sweet, green Grasshopper before eating her pasta.) Two septuagenarian ladies sitting across from us each made a dinner out of the most elegant appetizer on the menu, capesante gratinate la Frangelico: plump, tender sea scallops sautéed in a scandalous amount of hazelnut-flavored liqueur. They looked so tempting that I ordered them myself and got seriously woozy from the boozy bed of sautéed spinach that accompanied the four fabulous scallops.
The dinner entrées, which range from $10 to $18, include a small salad; the Caesar is perfectly nice (though it was seriously overdressed on one visit) but can't match the elegant simplicity of Carlitto salad, combining fresh greens, kalamata olives, cucumbers, and scallions in a piquant balsamic vinaigrette. It was that meal where I once again revisited my childhood by dining on Scavuzzo's sallasicca -- homemade sausage generously seasoned with garlic and fennel, broiled with slivers of sweet red and green peppers, and fat chunks of potatoes seasoned with parsley and rosemary. Bob went into rapture over an Italian-American dish I typically find unenthralling: chicken spiedini. But I snagged a taste of the marinated, breaded chicken kebabs and found them lusciously moist and wonderfully seasoned; the bird was served over a mound of pasta tossed with chopped tomato, fresh herbs and fat stalks of grilled asparagus.
A few days later, I returned with two glamour girls -- Marie and Ryann -- who rarely venture into downtown Overland Park and weren't sure that they wanted to. Marie's eyebrows rose slightly when an elderly man in a floral shirt and checkered suspenders passed by our table. Vittima di modo! Still, she noted the linen tablecloths, the fresh flowers on the tables, the decent wine list: "It's a cute little place," she said. "And everyone is so friendly."
We nibbled on fried calamari (wishing it were a shade more crispy) and eggplant panino, a crunchy concoction of thin eggplant slices stuffed with gooey cheeses, then breaded and deep-fried. We watched Scavuzzo hurry out from the kitchen to deliver a plate piled with the ingredients for a hearty antipasto and admired the soothing way his cheery wife, Suzanne, charmed a table of miffed young ladies who felt their server had been neglecting them. (They were probably right.)
"This is the kind of restaurant that my parents loved," I explained to my dining companions. "It felt like eating at home, but with better food."
My mother certainly never made a pasta carbonara the authentic way that Scavuzzo does in his kitchen, combining pasta (penne, in this case) with bits of smoky bacon, egg yolks, basil and Parmesan. The texture isn't creamy. (There's not supposed to be cream in it -- or peas, God forbid -- despite the way it's prepared in most restaurants.) "But it's really surprisingly good," Marie said. I agreed, but for visual reasons I wished it had been made with fettuccine instead; the stubby penne made it all look too clumpy.
The thick slab of strip steak smothered in tomato sauce, olives, mushrooms and artichoke hearts -- Bistecchine Alla Pizzaiola -- was a sumptuous combination of flavors served in such a gargantuan portion that Ryann took much of it home. Not so the delectable Pollo alla Stetsoni that I wolfed down, savoring the bubbling mozzarella, the salty pancetta and the fresh spinach stuffed inside a plump grilled chicken breast.
The desserts are extraordinary, particularly Scavuzzo's signature chocolate mousse (a recipe, lightly flavored with cinnamon, that he invented for the short-lived Platters restaurant) and a fluffy square of brandy-flavored tiramisu. I liked the light, citrus flavor of the Florentine ricotta cheesecake, but the distinct graininess of the torta di ricotta was a little surprising to my palate. Better yet was a delicious fruit tart baked for that night, laden with slices of sweet-sour red plums.
Not far from our table was the wedding photo of Sam and Florence Scavuzzo, taken in the 1920s. Sam was the patriarch of Kansas City's Scavuzzo clan, and it's amazing how much his grandson, Carl, looks like him. Sam opened his grocery store at 14th Street and Walnut in the early twentieth century, when Kansas City's downtown was the heart of the city. Carl's place, a restaurant with an adjoining delicatessen and bakery, is in the heart of the suburbs. But it still feels like a big-city joint.