I have a friend who lives in Paris. She keeps a tiny flat in an old building on an old street that's steps away from many of the expensive, cosmopolitan bistros and cafés of the stylish Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. But my friend, who is American, does not dine at those upscale boîtes. No, she prefers the unassuming Italian restaurant just a few doors from her apartment. It's not a fancy restaurant or even a very good one. But she knows that the food doesn't need to be spectacular in a neighborhood café — it just needs to be comforting. And my friend's storefront Italian dining room serves the kind of simple pasta dishes and soups that she liked as a child growing up on the American East Coast. All that's missing are the checked tablecloths and the Frank Sinatra recordings.
The point is, there's a certain kind of simple Italian restaurant — a neighborhood joint, really — that has become so iconic (with some assistance from Hollywood, where family-owned Italian restaurants have been celebrated from Lady and the Tramp to Big Night) that you can find one almost anywhere in the world. In the United States, there are also plenty of corporate-contrived imitations of the real neighborhood Italian joint — Buca de Beppo, Carraba's, Zio's — scattered throughout the suburbs, but they don't count. At the kind of restaurant I'm talking about, patrons are immediately recognized again after coming to eat for only the second time.
In the case of Parkville's Frank's Italian Restaurant and the new midtown location of the Mezzaluna restaurant (the original is still alive and well in Lenexa), I heard customers greeted with cries of "You're back!" by staffers who clearly don't forget a face — not even mine. The handsome head waiter and manager-in-training at the new Mezzaluna is the resolutely cheery Juan, who welcomes his diners so warmly and effusively that my friend David was starstruck. "If that's how customers are welcomed here, I want to be a regular," he told me.
David was less impressed with the behavior of a different Mezzaluna employee, a manager type he said had loudly scolded one of the servers in the middle of the dining room. He was imperious, David explained to me after I sat down at the table, arriving a few minutes after him.
Now, I believe that a dash of imperiousness — not too much, mind you — adds an appropriate theatricality to the restaurant experience, and this particular employee turned out to be quite entertaining. A week earlier, I had dined at this same restaurant — the brick building on Gregory formerly occupied by Papa Keno's Pizzeria — with a different friend, who was poring over the menu looking for a vegetarian dish. There were several options, but before my friend could contemplate any of them, the imperious one pulled the menu out of her hand with a dramatic flourish and announced, "I will create a special pasta just for you." I mean, who wouldn't love an offer like that?
"I don't know that I would have actually ordered this," my friend Diane whispered when her dish arrived. The kitchen had whipped together a fine bowl of spaghetti with artichoke hearts, slices of portabella mushrooms, garlic cloves, carrots, green beans and corn in a white-wine-and-garlic sauce. "It's not bad," she admitted. "Not like the bread."
The bread? Were those rosemary-dusted oversized cubes of plaster on the table supposed to be bread? True, it looked like focaccia, and I thought it was until I took an exploratory bite and nearly chipped a tooth. A hunk of real focaccia would have helped sop up the fabulous brandy cream sauce draped over that night's veal special, but there was none to be had at that meal.
On the second visit, with David, the focaccia was the real thing: soft and flavorful and an excellent complement to the starter du jour: slices of pillowy fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers splashed with a sexy balsamic vinaigrette. As for that night's entrées, the veal-stuffed ravioli in a rich porcini cream sauce was excellent, and David loved the cheese ravioli, which was topped with a tomato-brandy sauce and generously dappled with fresh lobster.
Mezzaluna's Web site insists that this neighborhood bistro is a little more multicultural than it actually is. "Come enjoy the flavors of eight different countries," it boasts. "Our chef will be preparing courses from countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany." The menu looks pretty straight-up Italian to me, though, unless you count a Frankenstein-like culinary creation called "Acapulco pizza" made with Canadian bacon, pineapple, mushrooms and mozzarella. The alleged cuisines from those other U.N. countries were MIA on my visits. But the Italian dishes are first-rate, so why not celebrate that?
The new Mezzaluna isn't a fancy joint — the napkins are paper, and there are no tablecloths — but it's cheery and a friend of mine who lives nearby loves the place. "Every neighborhood needs an Italian restaurant," he insists.
The historic hamlet of Parkville has had its neighborhood Italian place since the Great Depression, according to the menus at Frank's Italian Restaurant. It used to be called Papa Frank's and has moved a few times around Parkville's main drag, most recently to a prominent corner on Main Street. Until this month, it was operated by the popular and charismatic Frank McCall, who died on October 4 at age 49, apparently of a heart attack. He had already sold an interest in his restaurant to former Ameristar chef Ali Mahzoon, who continues to operate the cozy storefront dining room, using the McCall family recipes — creating the house sugo is still a three-day cooking process — and writing the day's specials on a small chalkboard.
It's a charming, unpretentious place, and it says volumes that the best-seller here is the Italian steak sandwich (smothered in that rich sugo), which I've tasted and really liked. Not everything on the menu is extraordinary, but it's all solid and comforting. I'd never order the calamari again (they look like savory little doughnuts), but the Mendolia sausage starter and the cheesy garlic toast were great, and I loved the "Lasagna rolls," a meatless spin on traditional lasagna with the seasoned ricotta rolled up in a sheath of pasta.
My friends, even the fussy ones, cut Frank's a lot of slack because the place is so intimate. It really does feel as though you're eating in someone's house — someone cooking in close proximity to your table. The pasta Diavola with shrimp, tossed in a punchy tomato cream sauce, is wonderfully spicy, and the eggplant dinner — though lacking visual appeal — is light, crispy and surprisingly greaseless.
It's classic small-town Italian-American cooking, and there's something rewarding about that. Not all the desserts are made in-house (the tiramisu, for example), but there usually are one or two homemade delicacies, such as last week's slice of pumpkin pie. It came sprinkled with enough powdered cinnamon to garnish about three full-sized pies, but there also was a fluffy cloud of real whipped cream. Maybe it wasn't very Italian, but as comfort food, it was pure la dolce vita, baby.