I assume that I get questioned about Italian restaurants so often because my last name is Sicilian -- which evokes all kinds of stereotypes in Kansas City. When I first moved here, I was startled when people's immediate response to my last name was "I'll bet you're a good cook," or "I'll bet you like good wine!" or "Are you related to [former local TV anchor and CBS correspondent] John Ferrugia?" The answers: I think so. Not anymore. No!
My father's mother cooked in the culinary tradition of her birthplace in the village of Castellana, but even she got bored with pasta, fresh vegetables and chicken and occasionally wanted a good American steak. And I get bored with too many local Italian restaurants -- independent operators and corporate chains alike -- serving variations on the same theme. Yes, I know most Kansas Citians adore grilled chicken "speidini" smothered in garlic butter or spaghetti swimming in a tomato sauce that's sweet enough to pour over ice cream. But if I'm really hungry for Italian food, that's the stuff I don't want.
So I ended up rattling off a few Italian restaurants that offer different and innovative dishes, but I forgot all about Frondizi's Ristorante -- even though I'd eaten a wonderful dinner there the previous night. Tucked into the strip of Tudor-style shops along Main northeast of the Plaza, Frondizi's is easy to overlook.
"You're not the only one who says that," says the restaurant's owner, Jimmy Frantze. Even though the restaurant has been in business for two years, Frantze says it's "still battling a perception problem. Part of it is the location, because we're near the Plaza but not on it. We actually look out over the trees and fountain of Mill Creek Park, so it's a little like being in the country."
And that location -- formerly the site of the ill-fated Venue, then the short-lived Charlie's on the Hill -- isn't exactly eye-catching. Driving north or south, by the time you realize that Frondizi's is perched right there on the corner, you're already in the middle of the Plaza or halfway to Westport.
Frantze may be the one restaurateur who can break this location's spell of bad luck. He's had great success with another restaurant in an even less-visible, less-accessible spot: the sixteen-year-old J.J.'s, on the corner of 48th and Belleview. And if the restaurant that bears his original Italian family name (before it was mangled on Ellis Island) got off to a rocky start, Frondizi's has finally come into its own as an original, stylish trattoria. That's in no small part due to Linda Duerr, the restaurant's intense executive chef.
"Before Linda, we went through three chefs in eight months," Frantze says. "She really pulled the kitchen together and developed the menu."
The food has improved dramatically since Duerr (who was the head chef at Lidia's before defecting to the Frantze camp eighteen months ago) put her mark on the kitchen. Out went some of her predecessors' awful inventions (a side dish of gummy pancetta-leek potatoes, for example) and in came marvelous creations, such as a Cornish game hen stuffed with tart cherries and rich fois gras or a decadent ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms.
Appetizers include the usual suspects. Carpaccio is shaved as thin as pink tissue paper. Fat, quivering lumps of milky mozzarella, violent red tomatoes and bits of freshly-picked, aromatic basil -- the Chanel No. 5 of the Italian kitchen -- come sprinkled with a piquant balsamic vinaigrette. A roasted garlic bulb's buttery-soft amber cloves hide behind a crackly parchment wrapper.
Instead of a basic plate of fried squid, Duerr's calamari concoction mixes tentacles (deep fried in an airy batter) with crunchy clam fritters and slivers of fried zucchini. It's expensive -- a right it earns. Better yet are the four butterflied shrimp, dipped in a chickpea-flour batter and fried so quickly that the topaz crust simply dissolves as you bite into it. And at two different meals, I watched friends rapturously attack a firm emerald globe of summer artichoke, first steamed, then lightly grilled and dusted with grated parmesan. Accompanied by a potent, garlicky sauce of wine and melted butter, it was big and meaty enough to hold its own as a dinner.
It shouldn't, though, since so many other surprises come out of Duerr's kitchen. Drizzled with a zesty roasted-shallot vinaigrette, the house salad is tasty and better than the discreetly dressed Caesar with oversized croutons in a frosted glass bowl. But both are frequently put to shame by the unexpected salads that Duerr creates as specials, such as a shiny jumble of quartered red and green Italian tomatoes tossed with fluffy dollops of goat cheese and tart vinaigrette.
One of the few holdovers from the pre-Duerr regime is the tender osso buco, simmered in a veal stock fragrant with red wine and fresh lemon; it's a Frantze family recipe. And Frondizi's pasta offerings are to spaghetti and meatballs what Versace is to the Jaclyn Smith Collection at Kmart. Puffs of gnocchi, made with spinach and ricotta, float on a puddle of mahogany-colored burnt butter sauce; lobster risotto -- the sexiest dish on the menu -- is straight out of La Dolce Vita. My friend Sidonie was almost sheepish about the prospect of plunging a fork into the elegant surface of the buttery rice stew, dotted with huge chunks of Maine lobster. When she finally did, she sighed and pronounced it divine.
I had the same reaction to a grilled, seared and roasted double-cut pork chop, thicker than a copy of Dante's Inferno and still soft and pink at the center, its surface lightly glazed with garlic and brown sugar, then a spoonful of a spicy fruit chutney. ("Customers worry about that," our server, Heather, confessed when we asked about the meat, "but we marinate the pork in brine, so it's supposed to be pink.")
After this kind of Italian eating orgy, what better way to say ciao to a perfect evening than the favorite dessert of Venetian courtesans, tiramisu (which translates as "pick-me-up," according to The Dictionary of Italian Cuisine and anyone who actually speaks Italian). Frondizi's presents the dessert once known as "Tuscan Trifle" as if it's a gift: a box-shaped cube artfully constructed of marscapone, cream and ladyfingers dipped in espresso, coffee liqueur and Marsala wine, topped with a cloud of real whipped cream and surrounded by a shiny pool of espresso syrup.
The dessert, like most of the offerings at Frondizi's, was more than memorable. So how could I forget the restaurant? I probably subconsciously wanted to keep the restaurant my own little secret. If it gets too busy, how will I get a table?