One of the first things I learned as a new Kansas Citian, back in 1984, was that the locals believed real Italian cuisine had been influenced more by St. Louis than by Rome. That pretty much sums up KC's inferiority complex.
I grew up in a comparably sized Midwestern city, a place where restaurateurs from Italy or New York City judged one another strictly by the quality of their marinara (never called "red sauce") and their meatballs. Nobody had ever heard of "The Hill" and the apparently famous restaurants located there, and St. Louis was as foreign to most of us as Rome. (I had relatives in St. Louis, but they were from my mother's side and not Italian. Worse, my father told me, they were vulgarians who put mayonnaise on everything.)
St. Louis continues to cast a culinary shadow over this city — or, anyway, Michael Garozzo does. The larger-than-life St. Louis native has served that city's style of Italian food at his various namesake venues for nearly 25 years, attracting a big and loyal following. Some talented local chefs have studied and cooked in Italy, but unless they — like Garozzo and another recent import, Michael Del Pietro (of Sugo's Spaghetteria) — have some connection to the Gateway City as well, diners here somehow fail to be impressed.
Four months ago, cucina St. Louis became one of the dining draws on Lawrence's Massachusetts Street, when chef Jim Vaughn and his wife, Leslie, took over the former Round Corner Drugstore space, last occupied by chef Robert Krause's Esquina restaurant. Vaughn is a St. Louis native and a former chef at one of that city's iconic Sicilian-American restaurants, Charlie Gitto's. He spent three decades working for the Gitto family.
Charlie Gitto's is the same restaurant where Garozzo launched his career, and, perhaps in homage, both Garozzo and Vaughn serve the ice-cold, heavily dressed salad that's a signature of the Gitto repertoire. (Vaughn adds roasted red peppers and cherry tomatoes.)
Esquina had trouble finding an identity. (It opened as a "Nuevo Latino" taqueria in 2010 but eventually hopped the Atlantic to become a Mediterranean bistro.) But the Vaughns appear to be on more solid footing. There's no mistaking Intorno as anything but the St. Louis–style Sicilian-American restaurant it's meant to be. That means spaghettini and meatballs (made of memorably tender beef) and garlicky, cheese-and-prosciutto-stuffed chicken spiedini. The succinct but well-rounded menu is heavy on shellfish and a little stingy on meatless options, but Vaughn is playing to his strengths: His calamari appetizer and crab cakes are the best I've tasted in the Lawrence-KC area.
The Vaughns originally left St. Louis to open a restaurant in Topeka last fall. "We had family there," Vaughn tells me. "It seemed like a good idea." But Esquina became available, and the timing was right. "I knew Robert Krause and I knew he wanted to take a different direction," Vaughn says. "We love the location."
The couple hasn't made dramatic changes to the décor of this long, narrow storefront space, but the room is now perfumed by the wood, mostly oak, fueling an oven that's usually full of hearty, meaty lasagna. (The version here comes layered with the cheese most closely associated with St. Louis — the cheddar-provolone-and-swiss combination called Provel — and ricotta.) It's a seductive smell. As soon as the server was done filling my water glass, I impulsively ordered some food.
I'm resistant to the allure of manicotti — it's the Topher Grace of Italian cuisine — and most of the linguini choices here are smothered in shellfish. I was in the mood for neither on my first visit, which I'd decided to make a meatless one. My server, Jordy, assured me that the kitchen would accommodate my request for something else, and she was right. Vaughn prepared his fluffy, house-made black-pepper gnocchi with vegetable stock rather than chicken stock. (The simple sauce was rich with garlic and asiago cheese.)
I snagged a hunk of my friend's chicken spiedini to take home with me: It was divine. Even cold, at 3 a.m., the pounded bird breast rolled around a filling of salty prosciutto, Provel and fresh tomatoes. I wish I had bought a piece of Vaughn's cheesecake to eat along with it.
On my second visit, I was ravenous enough to consider asking for every starter on the menu (except the toasted ravioli, which isn't Italian but Appalachian). But I came to my senses and settled on calamari provenzale, which turned out to be a substantial portion. With a salad and slices of the crusty WheatFields baguette served here, the saucy squid would make a perfectly satisfying main course. Vaughn flash-fries the calamari, rendering it crunchy and delectably light. It comes tossed with shiny green Kalamata olives, ribbons of red and green peppers, celery and onion, in a simple dressing of olive oil, herbs and a few drops of aged balsamic vinegar.
"Don't order the stuffed portobello," whispered Chris, the snappy, attentive server who guided me this visit. "The crab cakes are so much better." He was right. The jumbo lump crab cakes I sampled were nearly the size of handballs, with no perceptible binding filler — "We only use a tiny amount of breadcrumbs, parmesan and egg to hold the cakes together," Vaughn says — and fried in olive oil and butter. The finished patties get a discreet squiggle of fiery adobo sauce and a soothing dill dressing, which add up to a striking but not overbearing kick.
Chris directed my friend to a bowl of linguini, which arrived with a borderline-ridiculous load of sautéed shrimp, clams, scallops and mussels. After that aphrodisiac festival and the inevitable sambuca-scented, house-made tiramisu, my dining companion was flirting with every waiter in the room and even a couple of the customers. A silver pot of French-press coffee returned her to sanity. "I knew better than to order that cocktail special before eating something," she said. (Manhattans cost $5 on Mondays.) "They make me a little giddy."
Giddy is, as they say in Palermo, perfettamente naturale. They might say it that way in St. Louis, too, but I'd rather hear it in Lawrence. A little misbehaving is completely acceptable after a full-bodied meal at Intorno.