For nearly a decade, the narrow building at 17104 East U.S. Highway 24 sat empty. The underground gas tanks outside the former filling station and convenience store had been ripped out. The pumps were history, the roof on the adjoining building was leaking, and everything that could have been stolen from inside had been looted long ago.
Something in this eyesore inspired a vision. As Michael Spero drove that stretch of Highway 24 over and over, passing the forlorn building with the dissolving roof, he saw an answer to something else he'd noticed from his car: There was no Italian restaurant in the area. With a little work, Spero thought, he could fill two voids at once.
But turning a ghost-town gas-and-go into a cozy Italian joint required a lot more work than Spero figured. It took him and his family two years, but they eventually doubled the size of the building. They poured concrete, built walls, replaced the roof and the flooring and all of the wiring. They installed bathrooms and a tiny kitchen, of course, and they added a deck.
Their labor hasn't resulted in a flashy property; it's pretty easy to pass by the place as you steer toward Interstate 70. But Michaelangelos Grill, which opened last summer, gives off a big friendliness that's happily out of proportion to its small size.
There are no strangers at Michaelangelos, ever. Not as long as Spero is in the kitchen, or his daytime waitress, Anjelica, is holding court in the narrow dining room. Anjelica clearly missed her calling. She should be the star of a reality show. During a single lunch at the restaurant, I learned that she has six young children, and she was once a professional landscaper. She's also very funny. I watched her do a hilarious, full-body parody of the raucously drunken visitors who descend on Independence's annual Santa-Cali-Gon Days.
You wouldn't find a character like Anjelica at a more mainstream restaurant — a Lidia's or even an Anthony's on Grand. But a place like Michaelangelos needs larger-than-life personalities, organisms of the genus most often found in old-fashioned diners. That's what Michaelangelos is, as you can see with a look at its hefty sandwiches, served in plastic baskets, and their accompanying fries (regular, sweet-potato or peppery-spiced). The limited entrée list includes four pasta dinners, a country-fried steak smothered in gravy, and fried meatballs draped with translucent grilled onions.
"We call our pasta basta," says Spero, who was born and raised in Kansas City's historic Italian neighborhood. "Because that's what they call it in the old North End." His sugo is a family recipe, but unlike a lot of traditional Sicilian marinaras, this sauce isn't especially sweet. It actually has a robust herbal note, predominantly oregano, and it's tasty atop the noodles (which aren't house-made). The only entrée costing more than $10 is the tortellini, which can be ordered with tomato sauce or a creamy, Parmesan-heavy Alfredo.
But wait — back to those fried meatballs. I confess that I loved them, even after I discovered they weren't Spero's creations. Like the mildly spiced sausage here, the meatballs are from Scimeca's — still local, still very good, and a satisfying and cheap dinner on their own. A plate of six meatballs (handball-sized but somehow still supple) comes with a basket of bread and a side of sauce.
As at any good diner, the signature dishes at Michaelangelos are the sandwiches. (And, no, there's no apostrophe in the name — that's what Spero wanted, and he's too big a guy for a typographer to argue with.) Spero says the best-sellers are the hand-breaded Italian steak and the pork tenderloin. I didn't order either of those, though. I went with Anjelica's fervent advice, having heard her rave about Spero's Reuben. "The corned beef is so tender," she said. "It's the real thing."
I was game, and I found that Spero does make the sandwich with local Boyle's corned beef. Anjelica wasn't wrong: It was a first-class version of the sandwich, served on marble rye, beautifully grilled and sided with a heap of crinkle-cut fries — which Spero needs to overcook a bit because it's a fry that's prone to easy sogginess. Fortunately, I'd ordered a side of fettuccine Alfredo. The cream sauce was tasty but began to thicken before I did. Get it but eat it fast.
I was a little afraid of the meatball sub, not because of its size (it was plenty big) but because I was wearing a white shirt — I'm a notoriously sloppy eater. It looked good, though, and what's a little extra laundry when a meatball sub beckons? I took a fierce bite and dropped my shirt at the dry cleaner later that night.
Spero's primary audience seems to be families with kids, and that's fine for a place that closes at 8 p.m. during the week. There's a tiny bar in the front, but this isn't where the drinking crowd hangs out. ("The drinkers," whispered one of the waitresses, "all go to Dr. Pikl's up the street. That place is wild!") Spero was hesitant about putting in a bar at all. "I thought it might scare some families off," he says. "But it hasn't. People like a little glass of wine with their pasta."
There's only one dessert on the menu: cannoli. But a pastry chef, who is a pal of Spero's, brings in different specialty items during the week. "Look at this," Spero said one recent night, holding up a plastic-wrapped hunk. "Strawberry streusel cake!" I told him that I never buy a dessert that looks as if I could have made it myself. If he brings in some cheesecake, we'll talk.
For now, it's easy to be patient with the idiosyncrasies here. Spero is juggling two jobs: serving as cook and manager of his restaurant and running his liquor store, also called Michaelangelos, on 23rd Street in Independence. "I'm really burning the candles at both ends these days," he says. "I didn't think it would be this hard."
Well, that's why labors of love are labors: They're hard. But Spero isn't complaining, and neither are his patrons. You can eat heartily for very little money at Spero's place, and he'd love to see you. Besides, there aren't many places on Highway 24 ready to make you this pleased to have stopped.