It was such broad stereotyping of my family that I wouldn't have been a bit surprised if he had gone on to predict that my old man had been in the mob, my sister was a nun and my swarthy brothers ran around in wife-beaters and gold chains. For years the media have done an excellent job depicting Italian-Americans as being exactly those kinds of caricatures. I grew up watching them on TV. For the record, my late father was a wine salesman, my sister is an actress, and my two brothers don't own gold chains. And my "mamma," who isn't Italian, never made an edible pan of lasagna. But she was very good at making reservations at restaurants that did.
Maybe because our society has become more sensitive, I don't hear those stereotypical comments so often anymore. But when a friend of mine recently told me that several new Italian restaurants have opened in the metro, he added, "That should make you happy." Well, no more happy than if a new restaurant was serving Thai, Mexican or French cuisine. I'm just thrilled when a good restaurant opens.
And that brings me to Felitza's, the Italian restaurant up on Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, Kansas. This neighborhood's history was shaped by the Eastern European immigrants who settled here over a century ago, so an Italian restaurant in this venue is a sign of how the area is evolving. Goodbye, mild cevapi sausages; hello, spicy Italian ones.
The restaurant's location wasn't unknown to me. I had often eaten there in its previous incarnation as the Croatian dinette, Jennie's. The dining room doesn't look that different now, though the shelves of Eastern European groceries are gone. There are a dozen or so tables, hanging plants and a few unmemorable geegaws scattered here and there. There's not much in the way of décor, but the place is so dimly lighted, you won't notice the interior anyway.
Felitza's, named for the grandmother of its Mexican-born owners, husband-and-wife Roberto and Sonia Bautista, is already more than a year old. I kept hearing positive things about the place, but I wasted a lot of time actually getting there. Now that I have, I'm very happy to have discovered it. It's not perfect by any means, but the Bautistas serve the Italian dishes (and a couple of eye-talian ones) that prove one ethnic stereotype: No one leaves an Italian restaurant with an empty belly.
I was stuffed after both of my visits to Felitza's. I also was full of a sense of déjà vu. Roberto worked at his brother Juan's restaurant Carmen's Café in Brookside before opening his own place. So it's not surprising that many of that venue's intensely garlicky dishes would cross the state line. Roberto, who alternates between cooking and waiting tables, says there are similarities between the Carmen's menu and his own, but he insists, "I'm doing things my way."
His way means serving the same delicious dish of sautéed veal smothered in Alfredo sauce and artichoke hearts known as veal Sebastian at Carmen's. (Roberto calls it Veal Carmen.) And the marinated, broiled chicken skewers known as chicken spiedini Beatriz at Carmen's is chicken spiedini Gladys on Strawberry Hill. But what's in a name? If the dish tastes great, call it chicken spiedini King Kong, for all I care.