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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.