The 16-year-old Milano is the restaurant that gets no respect or not nearly as much as it deserves. To prove my point, I asked a dozen or so friends to name their favorite Italian restaurant in town. At the fancy end of the spectrum, they typically mentioned Jasper's or Lidia's, and the most laid-back favorites were Anthony's, Garozzo's or Accurso's. No one even mentioned Milano. "I never even think of that place," confessed a friend who dines out habitually. "Isn't it a restaurant for, you know, tourists?"
Well, Milano is located in the Crown Center complex of hotels, apartments, restaurants and shops, which is probably more of a lure for the convention crowds than the local trade. If you exclude Hallmark employees who often talk about patronizing Crown Center shops in artificially peppy tones, as if they had done a good deed I don't know anyone who really goes "shopping" at Crown Center. That even includes a friend who actually lives in the complex.
But even though the Crown Center complex is a blah in the retail category, it boasts some of this city's better restaurants: Skies and the Peppercorn Duck Club in the Hyatt; Benton's Chop House in the Westin; and Milano, the most underappreciated of the bunch.
Located on the street level in Crown Center, just steps away from the newly spiffed-up atrium lobby, Milano seemingly has all the right ingredients for success: free garage parking, a glass-paned main dining room, a professional waitstaff and an appealing menu. So why is it so often overlooked when patrons consider lively Italian restaurants?
My friend Ned, who lives nearby, says Milano became "staid and lifeless" during the years when it was operated by Culinary Concepts LLC, the dining division of Hallmark. I disagree, but it did lack a distinct personality in spite of its many face-lifts and chef changes over the years. And there were always rumors that few of its five dining operations were profitable. Last year Culinary Concepts finally said "Basta!" and handed over the management of three Crown Center restaurants Milano, the Crayola Café and Golden Harvest Bakery to the Hyatt corporation. (Culinary Concepts held on to its crown jewel, nationally recognized The American, and to the Patio dining room inside the Crown Center Hall's store.)
The restaurant we now know and don't really respect as Milano had a very respectable start. When the solarium-style dining room opened in 1981, it was a sophisticated American bistro called The Crystal Pavilion. Original manager Steve Cole, who went on to open the legendary Café Allegro, recalls the place as ahead of its time. "It was very cutting-edge," Cole says, "a casual version of The American."
Milano wasn't cutting-edge in any of its incarnations, but its focus on regional Italian cuisine was stylish, and the prices were reasonable. When the Hyatt took over Milano in the spring of 2004, I wrote that some loyalists feared that the cost-conscious management chain might "dumb down" former chef John Korycki's menu. I'm happy to report that since St. Louis-born chef Dominic Vaccaro took over the kitchen last year, the fare at Milano has improved dramatically. He's kept Korycki's best innovations including the grilled salmon heaped with tomatoes, capers, black olives and fresh oregano and put his own spin on the rest.
Vaccaro not only deserves respect but is starting to get it. Eating lunch at Milano one afternoon, I saw one of the fussiest food snobs I know relishing every single bite of a thick slab of Sicilian-style lasagna. I've always considered lasagna to be a Sicilian invention, but my Italian aunts say that lasagna Siciliana means only that the dish is made with meat. Vaccaro's definition uses a heavier portion of Italian sausage. "It's so fresh-tasting," the food snob said when he came to my table. "I think you should order it, too."
I was torn between that recommendation and the day's special, a different lasagna made with fresh spinach and a hearty Bolognese sauce. I had recklessly eaten almost a whole plate of light, crispy calamari before even thinking about lunch, so I chose a Caesar salad instead. It came generously laden with chilled shrimp tossed in a fresh basil marinade.
There's a slight touch of that distinctive St. Louis-style Italian hearty Southern Italian cooking in Vaccaro's culinary repertoire and his unflappable good nature. There's no spaghetti and meatballs on the Milano menu, but Vaccaro gets so many requests for the Italian-American dish that he frequently offers it as a special. The other most-requested dish not on Milano's menu? "Fettuccine Alfredo with chicken," Vaccaro says. "If we're not too busy, I'll make it."
But it's a sin not to order the stuff that's on Vaccaro's menu. It's a nice combination of the stylish, such as lobster-filled ravioli in a tomato cream sauce deftly punched up with a splash of Sambuca liqueur. Even the familiar, like the Kansas City Strip, gets a new take here. Vaccaro coats his with a gorgonzola crust and sides it with grilled portabella mushrooms.
There's not a lot of beef on Milano's menu, but one night when I was dining with Merrily and Bob, the special was a plate of tender beef tips glazed with a balsamic reduction and arranged around a creamy asparagus risotto. Merrily loved it so much, I practically had to beg for a bite. Bob wouldn't share a morsel from his favorite dish on Vaccaro's menu, a chicken saltimbocca that lives up to its name (literally "jump in the mouth"). It's a combination of vibrant flavors wrapped around that plump chicken breast: sage, fontina cheese, salty prosciutto, and a tart lemon butter.
That was the night I practically put myself into a carbohydrate coma (thanks to those addictively crunchy pencil-thin Torini breadsticks and a big hunk of ciabatta baked with sun-dried tomatoes) before the waiter even took our order. I considered one of the lighter options, such as ravioli stuffed with grilled vegetables, but I suddenly craved something spicy. Unfortunately there's nothing too fiery on Milano's menu. The turisti don't like spicy, I was told. The only exception is the gamberetti fra diavalo the devil's shrimp. OK, so the crustaceans aren't so hot, but the fluted mafalde pasta practically steams with a pomodoro sauce potent with garlic and chili flakes.
The pretty, glass-paned dining room is just as attractive at night as it is during daylight hours, which makes this space particularly lovely from a visual standpoint. Aurally, it's a nightmare. The noise level can be deafening when the room is filled with chatty diners. There are plans to correct this by adding mesh umbrellas in key areas, but I worry that could potentially distort the airy, greenhouse quality of the space.
As a child, chef Vaccaro used to make homemade cannoli in his grandmother's basement in St. Louis. ("It wasn't on The Hill," he said; everyone asks.) Now he fills the traditional chocolate-and-pistachio-covered pastry shells with chilled ricotta and Chianti-marinated cherries. He also offers a dense, flourless torta di cioccolata and the ubiquitous tiramisu. The wildest creation is a meringue-covered scoop of lemon gelato, doused with limoncello liqueur and perched on a citrus-olive-oil cake. It's the kind of dolci one might order in Rome or this restaurant's namesake city. But Kansas City diners prefer the familiar, such as cheesecake or crème brûlée, to anything too exotic, let alone booze-filled. There's the occasional request for spumoni, but Vaccaro doesn't serve it.
When Milano's most recent makeover took shape earlier this year, the old bar was moved out of its claustrophobic corner to the front of the restaurant. It has never looked better, and manager Gretchen Keaton says bar business has increased dramatically. And by adding Dominic Vaccaro's culinary style, this snazzy-looking Milano is finally establishing an identity of its own. So go ahead, give Milano some respect.