One of the questions people ask me most is, "Where did Kansas City gangsters eat back in the heyday of the mob?" Even Anthony Bourdain asked me, during his visit to town last December.
If any of those spots still existed, I'd have driven the chef to one myself. The places popular with mobbed-up Kansas Citians in the 1940s and '50s are long gone. Razed decades ago, the original Majestic Steakhouse, in midtown, reportedly was popular with underworld bigwigs, but the Majestic Restaurant that's now downtown has no connection to it. And heritage spots like the Savoy Grill, Dixon's Chili and Town Topic were never wiseguy magnets.
There is, however, a restaurant on the site where mobsters were once laid to rest.
On April 5, 1950, Charles Binaggio — one of the "Five Iron Men" in the local mob — was gunned down in the 1st District Democratic Club with another of the famous five, Charles "Mad Dog" Gargotta. No one was ever charged in the slayings.
The bodies of Binaggio and Gargotta were on view at Peter Lapetina's funeral home, at 536–538 Campbell. Those wishing to pay their respects numbered in the thousands — an even bigger turnout than that of the wake held for mob boss John Lazia 16 years earlier.
This year, you can mark the 62nd anniversary of the notorious gangland homicide with a really good meatball sandwich, served where Lapetina's used to be.
The tile-floored storefront on Campbell is now the sunny, attractive dining room of Pandolfi's Deli. Jake Hendershot (his mother is a Pandolfi) has operated a casual Italian-style delicatessen in the space for two years. The northern half of the building — the former funeral home — is being renovated for use as a dining room and event space. Ahead of that, Hendershot has introduced a semiformal dinner service.
Hendershot's partner in this culinary venture is childhood friend Grant Cansler. "We grew up next door to each other," Cansler says. "We went to the same high school and were roommates and fraternity brothers at William Jewell." Hendershot's degree is in business, Cansler's in music theory and composition.
After a few post-graduation detours, Cansler is now a chef. He worked under Celina Tio at the American but got sidetracked by a corporate job as an IT project manager for Cerner. After seven years there, Cansler says, he needed a more creative outlet and returned to cooking. Hendershot hired him for Pandolfi's.
The dinner menu — offered, so far, only on Friday and Saturday nights — is, unsurprisingly, heavy on Northern Italian dishes. There are a couple of Pandolfi family recipes (manicotti, the sugo) and several creations inspired by Cansler's long stay in Milan. "I was there to study music," he says, "but I did a lot more cooking." It seems like kind of a gamble — the wildly popular Garozzo's is a few blocks away — but the two venues are very different. If Garozzo's is the vital, earthy Anna Magnani of local Italian restaurants, Pandolfi's Deli is — at night, anyway — more like the Monica Bellucci of Columbus Park: New World cool, a little prettier, a bit more aloof.
The food is different, too. No one is going to mistake Mike Garozzo's traditional Sicilian spaghetti and meatballs for Cansler's robust, herb-heavy version. And don't expect Cansler to whip up chicken spiedini (Garozzo's signature dish) or toasted ravioli.
Since dinner service started in December, Cansler has dropped a couple of dishes. (Some Italians, myself included, may love braised rabbit, but regulars at Pandolfi's didn't.) And Cansler has changed his recipe at least twice for roasted vegetable lasagna. I preferred the first version, though what's on the menu now — a circular tower of roasted fall vegetables layered with ricotta and the delicate crepes used for the manicotti — is certainly prettier.
Cansler says he's introducing a spring menu in a couple of weeks, but he makes some changes almost weekly. A rustic delicacy he was offering as an amuse-bouche — arancini balls — proved so popular (hello, it's fried) that it now has a permanent spot on the starter menu. The chilled risotto is wrapped around a center of fresh mozzarella, rolled in gluten-free flour and fried until the surface is golden and crispy. Yes, it's the Sicilian equivalent of state-fair food, but I love it, and the dipping sauce — Cansler's oregano-scented sugo — is fresh-tasting and delicious.
A quartet of crostini — slices of Le Monde Bakery baguette — showcases four toppings. I wanted to like the roasted-eggplant "caviar," but the wan color and tacky texture were off-putting. The olive tapenade on another piece more than made up for that disappointment, and the dollop of fluffy, house-made ricotta on the third was better still. (The last, cannellini bean with tomato, was fine but forgettable.)
Among the salads, Cansler's vegetarian "carpaccio" is a standout. His tissue-thin slices of deep-purple beets, topped with a jumble of spicy fresh arugula and tarted up with bits of gorgonzola and crunchy walnuts, is a smart and satisfying alternative to beef — one I think I might prefer to the traditional dish.
The pasta dishes change frequently enough that I hesitate to declare a favorite. I will say that Cansler's creative spin on carbonara doesn't pay off like his carpaccio — it's too avant-garde, even for me. It has the traditional pancetta and egg among the ingredients, but the sauce isn't rich enough, and I firmly believe that a poached egg's only appropriate place is on an English muffin. The shrimp on the carbonara I sampled was a pretty touch but gratuitous.
If I got a vote in Cansler's kitchen, I'd say keep the risotto, which is creamy and gorgeous, but don't lose either of the two versions of braised short ribs that I tried recently. Both times, the slow-simmered meat was so flavorful and succulent that it rendered the side dish of blanket-thick polenta almost irrelevant. Oh, and please never stop making the Brussels sprouts, roasted until slightly smoky and delicately seasoned. They might be the best I've tasted in the city.
Back to the short ribs, though. Get them with an order of focaccia (also from Le Monde Bakery, in the Northland), the better to soak up the pan jus. And make sure there's bread enough to gather remaining sauce from the spaghetti, or the saffron beurre blanc from the pillowy seared scallops. Not too much bread, though — I ate so much that, alas, I could barely confront dessert.
Gangsters eat dessert, though old-school types might want more than the airy refreshment of lemon-basil granita. The honey-vanilla ricotta filling in the crunchy cannoli beckoned me — until I remembered what happened to Eli Wallach in The Godfather: Part III. So I went with — what else — a square of tiramisu. At Pandolfi's, the dish is made with sweet Marsala, and it's good. Sipping a first-rate espresso adds a little fuel for talking and spending some more time in a remarkable setting.
You won't be laid to rest after dining at Pandolfi's, but the experience is unquestionably restful and satisfying. Cansler and Hendershot have put together an exceptionally appealing, intimate and comfortable dining destination, and the food and the wine selections are terrific. The place could be a hit.