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That was the night I broke my vow never to order cannelloni in a Kansas City restaurant (because it's usually prepared so badly). It's one of Il Centro's signature dishes, and the two soft crepes wrapped around a filling of sautéed chicken, spinach and mushrooms had a rich, golden tomato cream sauce that made the ubiquitous focaccia bread -- the spongy, cheese-flecked wedges come with almost every dish except the desserts -- actually necessary. Bob was equally impressed with another standard here, the spiedini di pollo, with a plump chicken breast drenched in garlicky amogia sauce.
"It's the perfect neighborhood restaurant," Bob said. "It's a place where you wish everyone knew your name."
But I hope no one there remembers how I made a piglet out of myself on the night I visited with Robert and Beatriz, two Johnson Countians who love Il Centro but only dine there if some cultural activity, such as the Kansas City Rep, forces them to drive north of 103rd Street. "We eat here all the time," Beatriz said, neatly unrolling a red cotton napkin across her lap. "No, we don't," Robert corrected her. "But we always like it when we're here. It's very warm and unpretentious."
One of our appetizers had pretensions of glamour, but the shrimp carciofi lived up to them. The six crustaceans were each nestled in a tender artichoke bottom and slathered with garlic-lemon butter that had us reaching for the focaccia again. "When I saw all that butter," Robert said, "I knew it was going to be good. "
So were the pretty little salads, including a house number with cucumber, carrots and Roma tomatoes tossed with mixed greens in a house-made peppercorn ranch. For the main event, Robert raved over the small, juicy lamb chops, perfectly grilled and lightly splashed with a rosemary-brandy sauce. My own decadent dinner was a bowl of penne pasta dripping with a thick gorgonzola cream sauce, loaded with grilled chicken and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. It wasn't what Aunt Josephine would have suggested, but she wasn't around to make me feel guilty.
Beatriz liked the spray of green onion erupting from the steaming garlic-rosemary mashed potatoes alongside her petite medallions of tender veal piccata in a delicate wine-and-caper sauce. "It's really excellent," she said. "And surprisingly inexpensive."
In fact, at those prices it would have been a crime not to order dessert. The whipped Mascarpone cheese in the square of tiramisu was as fluffy as Cool Whip instead of dense and smooth, but there was a vague hint of espresso in there somewhere. Perhaps we'd chosen the wrong thing. "You really should have ordered the raspberry gelato ball," our waiter said. "It's really the dessert that we're famous for." He pointed to a shiny, softball-shaped mass of hot-pink ice cream that two diners were sharing at another table.
It's just another reason to go back, now that I'm planning to follow my grandfather's footsteps and eat a nice, healthy dessert until I'm 86.