Over the past 25 years, Avelutto has slimmed down his business empire to just two operations: the popular Italian Delight pizzeria in Mission and the nine-year-old Il Trullo restaurant in Overland Park. In that time, Avelutto's four sons -- John, Joseph Jr., James and Michael -- all worked tirelessly in each of the restaurants. Recently, however, the two older sons left the family business to pursue other interests, and the youngest, Michael, has entered college. James continues to run Italian Delight.
Papa Joe is philosophical about his older sons getting out of the restaurant business. "I will continue to run it as a family business," he says in his brisk, no-nonsense style. "And we'll find young people to help do this."
The most recent addition to the Il Trullo staff has been restaurant veteran David Rabinovitz, former owner of the beloved Metropolis Restaurant, who joined Avelluto as a general manager two months ago. Along with many other changes since I last reviewed the place ("Trulli, Madly, Deeply," May 10, 2001), Rabinovitz has brought a great deal of color and panache to Il Trullo's comfortable parallel dining rooms, which are always fragrant with the aroma of pizza dough baking in the distinctive wood-burning oven that's built in the peak-roofed style of the "little house" -- the trulli -- characteristic of Avelluto's home town.
"This is one of the most perfect restaurants in Kansas City," insisted my friend Carol Ann, an interior designer one night. "But the lighting is ghastly. It's as bright as a bowling alley in here! I've got to tell the owner to invest in a rheostat!"
Naturally, when Avelutto and his wife, Rose, appeared at the table to chat, Carol Ann got tongue-tied and didn't dare bring up the lighting, which isn't really that harsh. In fact, Carol Ann was too busy spreading olive tapenade on a slice of crusty, house-baked bread to do anything but nod appreciatively at the Avellutos. After a few more lusty sips from a glass of red wine, she not only didn't mind the lighting but actually appreciated it. "You can see how clean and tidy this restaurant is. I wonder why I've never heard of it before. "
That's been one of Joe Avelutto's biggest frustrations, he says. After nearly ten years, there are still diners who have never heard of his restaurant, much less ventured to the Johnson County strip mall -- anchored by TJ Maxx and a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market Store -- where it's located.
Avelutto's bigger frustration is the result of his own insistence on cooking only authentic Italian dishes instead of the Italian-American cuisine served at most of his restaurant rivals up and down Metcalf, including Villa Capri, Johnny Cascone's, Carraba's, Cinzetti's and the Macaroni Grill.
"I am, by nature, stubborn on serving only authentic dishes," Avelutto says with a sigh. "Whether or not the customers understand what I'm trying to do, well, that's still a question mark."
Most of Avelutto's fans understand that he's not about spaghetti and meatballs (which he doesn't serve) or chicken spiedini dripping with garlic butter. Avelutto has his own variation on spiedini, which baffled my friend Bob (a fan of the buttery Garozzo's version). He wasn't sure what to think of the little balls of chicken breast covering molten cheese and arranged neatly on his plate.
"But it doesn't look like chicken spiedini," Bob whined. The chicken actually looked like marshmallows -- but it tasted great, especially dipped in a roasted red pepper sauce. But Bob, who had indulged in one too many pieces of bread slathered in ceci bean purée, one too many excellent appetizers and one too many bites of a simple salad sprinkled with balsamic vinaigrette, felt full enough to push the dish away. "That is not chicken spiedini," he pouted.
But it is Avelutto's chicken spiedini, and he does things his way. Let all the Italian-American restaurants serve appetizers of fried ravioli or mozzarella sticks while Avelutto offers rollatine di melanzana: a slice of roasted eggplant rolled around a stuffing of veal, cheese, mint and garlic and baked in a fresh tomato sauce. Or the fabulous bocconcini di mozzarella al forno, a sheath of salty prosciutto wrapped around fresh mozzarella and baked in the wood-burning oven with garlic and tomatoes. It's all maddeningly good.
Maddening because it's easy to get so carried away with the starter courses that by the time the entrée arrives, you're ready to curl into a ball and take a long nap behind the trulli oven. But the sight of my dinner, a plate of mildly seasoned homemade sausage on a bed of rapini (that wonderful and restorative Italian relative of common turnip greens) immediately perked up my senses. Carol Ann nearly applauded at the silky, golden Aurora sauce covering her shrimp Francesina. "It's a gorgeous color," she announced. "And it tastes incredible."
Well, of course it did, thanks to all that butter and rich cream blended with the low-acid tomatoes and a bit of pepperoncini for a little heat.
To cool our palates, I spooned up most of the fluffy tiramisu and a fresh peach sorbet served in a carved-out frozen pesca, while Carol Ann, tipsy from the vino, was ready to dance the tarantella after a few bites of tart lemon-flavored sorbet splashed with melon-flavored liqueur.
When Bob and I returned to Il Trullo, we brought the more genteel Jeannie, who horrified Avelutto by revealing that she had never heard of the restaurant, either. Happily, she made up for her faux pas by loving everything she tasted, especially the superb grilled Puglian artichokes served with marinated cipollini onions and shaved slivers of Parmigiano and the crunchy calamari that we shared before dinner. When her main course arrived, she insisted that I taste the fork-tender veal scallopine. "How could I not know about this place?" she asked.
"Yes," said Avelutto, slyly. "How could you?"
Bob, who had recovered from his spiedini shock, raved about his "succulent and wonderful" hunk of beef tenderloin sautéed with Madeira, fresh tomatoes and gorgonzola cheese.
Wanting something spicy and trashy, I had ordered the legendary puttanseca -- the "whore's style" pasta made with a quickly cooked sauce of tomatoes, capers, olives, shallots and anchovies. I felt vaguely cheap and tawdry eating it, but what the hell -- I was worth it.
I recklessly overindulged again for dolce, ordering a goblet of decadent chocolate mousse and a martini glass heaped with coconut sorbet. I had intended to share them with Bob and Jeanne, but they'd become so engaged in a lively discussion with our server that I ate most of the desserts myself.
It was so refreshing to sit back and enjoy a long, leisurely meal without having to flag down a lackadaisical waiter or, worse, wishing some overattentive and idiotically perky server would go away. The service at Il Trullo is impeccable partly because Avelutto keeps an eagle eye on everything that goes on in the place but also because the staff is made up of polished, veteran (as in older than 30) waiters and waitresses.
"You have a wonderful restaurant," Jeanne said to Avelutto as he came to investigate our table.
Nodding paternally, Avelutto blushed slightly and announced that he'd come up with all kinds of new ideas to lure patrons to his place, including complimentary desserts on Thursday nights. But you have to eat your dinner first. After all, father knows best.