Restaurants, like any other kind of show business, must play to their audiences. But that's an art unto itself. Just ask Brian Miller. The dashing general manager of the four-month-old Chiusano's Brick Oven Pizzeria looks like a theatrical leading man because he is one. The star of several past shows at American Heartland Theatre and New Theatre Restaurant, Miller is semi-retired these days, auditioning occasionally while working full time at the pizzeria in the Legends entertainment complex.
Chiusano's Brick Oven Pizzeria is sort of the audition process, too. The casual restaurant, located in the former Ted's Montana Grill space, has been trying to find an audience since it opened in January. The good news for owner Robert Borberg, the brother-in-law of actress Alison Sneegas-Borberg, is that this neighborhood really needed a pizza restaurant. The bad news, in terms of creative fulfillment anyway, is that the Legends' demographic may not have much use for fancy pizza.
Like a Broadway producer ruthlessly cutting musical numbers from a show that isn't working, Borberg has introduced a new menu and sent some items packing. Gosh, it's hard to imagine that in the neighborhood where Sporting Kansas City and NASCAR are the brand-name attractions, no one was ordering the foie gras pizza, but there you have it. Also dropped from the chorus: the veal and the scallops, the osso buco and the mussels.
There is a Sporting KC pizza, and it's very good, topped with Italian sausage, garlic, Kalamata olives, mozzarella and marinated jalapeño peppers. It's the best-selling pie in the joint.
Borberg opened the pizzeria with his wife, the former Nancy Chiusano (it's pronounced kee-zahn-o), when they got a good deal to lease the vacant free-standing building that had been built — and very tastefully, with tile floors and Mission-style woodwork — for Ted Turner's steakhouse chain, in 2005. The interior is still snazzy. It looks like where you'd go to find a foie gras pizza. But the typical customers at Chiusano's — at least the ones I saw on my three visits to the restaurant — are families with small children.
On the Sunday night when I first ate here, though, the soundtrack wasn't Sesame Street but Saturday Night Fever. The satellite channel had been left on a brassy, all-disco station. I had no sooner bit into a mini-croissant (the "garlic knots" appetizer version is slathered with butter, olive oil, chopped garlic and basil) when I heard the dulcet tones of Cheryl Lynn wailing "Star Love." I hadn't heard it since 1980, when I watched a very fat drag queen lip-sync to the number in Fort Lauderdale. And I swear that I saw her clone at Chiusano's, eating fried ravioli in a booth on the other side of the restaurant.
"The disco music was an accident," Miller explained later. "Someone hit the wrong button. We normally play the Coffee House rock channel." I don't know that I want Bon Iver more than Cheryl Lynn when I'm at the Legends, but I'm funny that way.
Besides, the draw at Chiusano's is the pizza, which is very likable. The crust is remarkably light, but Borberg says his customers want to talk toppings, not dough. The closest his updated menu gets to exotic — after Borberg learned that people will duck a foie gras pie — is Kansas-raised elk sausage (which adorns the Snooty Coyote pie, along with bubbling brie and mozzarella). Between the game and the "brick oven" tag in the place's name, I expected the room to be fragrant with the smell of burning wood. But Chiusano's pizza oven is the round, candy-apple-red Remco Millennium 2000, and it looks more Jetsons than Neapolitan trattoria. (The "brick" is the heavy, round fired object that mechanically rotates inside the oven at a properly crust-scorching temperature.)
A tasty Greek pizza — with feta, mozzarella and roasted red peppers — is one of several pizzas here that stars salty Greek Kalamata olives. So it's not shocking that another Mediterranean-inspired creation, a gyro sandwich, survived the spring menu cuts. But the menu's ethnic sense — its common sense, as far as I'm concerned — hits a wall with the chicken Marsala. The bird in this classic French-Italian dish should be lightly sautéed, never plunged into a Fry Daddy-deep bath of vegetable oil. The nuances of the delicate Marsala wine sauce are completely drowned in the low-rent diner version at Chiusano's — the restaurant's biggest misstep.
"I thought that's what the customers out here would want," Borberg told me later.
He's probably right, but if I skip pizza for poultry here, I'll stick with the chicken parmesan. The moist and satisfying — and appropriately breaded and fried — chicken breast is typically encased in a thick, fried breading.
Borberg's oil also stays hot for one of the desserts: the doughnutlike zeppole, made to order. The house-made bread pudding is better, so I'm glad it has earned a place on the new menu. But I'm not sure I could ever bring myself to order another cup of the house gelato, created by Michigan-based Palazzolo's Artisan Gelato & Sorbetto. The chocolate version I tried was disappointingly gritty, and the peach-habanero was too light on the fruit and too heavy-handed with the pepper. (The company does make some terrific and more authentic Italian flavors, which Chiusano's should consider adding.)
Meanwhile, Borberg and his staff are going to keep experimenting with different dinner dishes as nightly specials, with an eye toward another menu update. Soup season is over, but I hope the hearty pasta fagioli soup becomes a year-round offering. Borberg's version is one of the most beautifully seasoned bean-and-pasta soups I've ever tasted, and its sensitivity to flavor and balance signals that his kitchen can find a strong permanent menu. Encore!