The corner gas station is gone now. So are the dinner theater, the antique shops and the supermarket. But other than those defections, the neighborhood hasn't changed much over the decades. The Cabaret opened back when disco was still hot. Down the block, the original Peanut has been around since the end of Prohibition. The Bollier family has sold pastries and Swiss-style lunches at Andre's since the 1950s. And the cooks at Jake Edwards Barbecue began slinging sweet potato fries before the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show.
The oldest business on the block is Accurso's Italian Food & Drink, even though the current owner, Joe Accurso, has been in charge only seventeen years. There's been a restaurant in this spot for so long, it makes the rest of this jolly old neighborhood seem as new as a Johnson County subdivision. And while Accurso's is practically invisible from the exterior, it still sports the aging "Main Street Deli" sign -- it hasn't been a deli for years, although there's been some kind of restaurant in this long, dark and narrow space since 1905.
Joe Accurso was just 23 when he took over the place with his sister Cathy in 1984 (Cathy now works as a school counselor in Lawrence), but he only recently started serving dinner. And after only two months, his restaurant is the worst-kept secret in Kansas City: The joint is packed almost every night. It's so busy, in fact, that you might have to stand around the entrance and smoke a cigarette with Joe (a great storyteller who knows everybody) and wait for one of the tables or booths to open up.
With the red-and-white gingham valance on the window, tables lit by candles stuck into Chianti bottles and family photographs hammered into every possible bit of wall space, Accurso's is the real version of what Buca de Beppo, a Minneapolis-based chain that just opened on the Plaza, pretends to be: a family-owned neighborhood joint serving home-style Italian dishes. Why settle for less than the real thing? Over in the un-Plaza neighborhood, the dark-eyed bartender slicks back his mane of black hair and a waitress hustles down the aisle from chef Mario Vega's tiny kitchen, balancing four plates of hot lasagna on her tiny arms. Joe Accurso still makes his own spicy Italian sausage, and Vega whips up a plate of baked ravioli -- a massive serving, including salad and bread -- that only costs a little bit more than you'd pay to have a valet park your car on the Plaza.
I took several friends to dinner at Accurso's. None of them was familiar with the restaurant, even though two had spent the last twenty years in Midtown.
"I guess I thought it was still a deli," Louise said before biting into a thick slice of bread spread with garlic butter. "I mean, who knew?"
I'd be lying if I didn't confess that Accurso's practices the one culinary technique I dislike most in Italian-American cooking: The kitchen ladles jarringly sweet, slightly runny tomato sauce onto everything, especially the spaghetti and the Italian steak. It's a Sicilian thing, I guess, since my own aunts make their sauce exactly the same way. And the breaded Italian steak was a shade salty. But those are only venial sins on this solid menu of traditional Southern Italian fare. Not even my own sainted grandmother could make such superb sausages, grilled and covered with thin slices of sautéed onion, sweet red and yellow peppers and tart green peppers. And the fettuccine Alfredo is the culinary equivalent of Pratesi linens -- the noodles barely visible under a thick blanket of cream and Parmesan sauce -- so decadent that only a glutton could finish it off.
I can be a glutton, but after every meal at Accurso's I still end up dragging home a Styrofoam box of leftovers. I blame it on the appetizers -- gorgeously crisp calamari; slices of bruschetta topped with a tangy blend of chopped tomato, garlic, fresh basil and piquant balsamic vinegar; or a diminutive version of eggplant Parmesan, presented in paper-thin slices of the purple-skinned vegetable, drenched in melted cheese. The brisk little salads are culprits as well, dappled with fresh tomato and purple onion. And that warm bread is addictive.
At one dinner, I watched my two college-age godsons finish appetizers, salads and bread and then polish off oversized platters of steak. Elliott wanted, and practically inhaled, Mario's Filet, a luscious grilled tenderloin smothered in a pale cream sauce that was, yet again, too runny, but generously laden with big, juicy scallops and pink shrimp. (My head was swimming just looking at it.) I barely made a dent in my oversized squares of ricotta-filled ravioli, which were lolling in a peppery pink tomato cream sauce.
Since Vega's kitchen is roughly the size of a confession booth (and he's in there alone, banging those pots and pans), dinners can take a while to arrive on really busy evenings. But have a cup of soup -- one night I had a great bowl of chowder, loaded with clams and chunks of potato -- or quaff another glass of vino, because some of the dishes are well worth the wait. The moist chicken marsala, for example, comes glazed with a smoky, caramel-colored wine sauce, while the chicken Romano is wrapped around a fluffy, cheesy spinach mousse. And everything is so reasonably priced, you'll wonder if you're actually eating in Italy, where the dollar is especially strong right now.
So spend a little extra on dessert. Joe's mother makes a glorious wedge of slightly lemony cheesecake, and Vega's tiramisu, dusted with chocolate shavings, is drenched with so much brandy that I was dizzy after a single bite.
Accurso's is a loud and boisterous place, day and night. It may not be everyone's cup of espresso, but it's certainly mine. One night, from my booth in the front room, I watched as a couple of rambunctious kids ran all over the place, a middle-aged couple unabashedly necked in their booth and a very chic -- and rich -- local divorcee held court at the bar. Over the sound system, Rosemary Clooney sang "Mambo Italiano," and right in front of me, my friend Louise brazenly winked at Mario, the chef.