The Newly restored Garozzo's is as hot as ever.

The Italian Job 

The Newly restored Garozzo's is as hot as ever.

If baby-faced restaurateur and part-time actor Michael Garozzo had been born several decades before 1955, he might have had a chance to make his mark as a movie tough guy back when gangster -- not gangsta -- films were rolling out of Hollywood nearly every week. With his gravelly voice and swarthy Sicilian looks, Garozzo could have held his own with the best of the character-actor heavies, such as Snitz Edwards (1931's The Public Enemy) or Stanley Field (1930's Ladies Love Brutes).

But Garozzo has done well enough for a guy who hasn't left town since he moved here from St. Louis 25 years ago. He now owns four restaurants and has made two films. In 1996, Garozzo played gangster Charlie Gargotta in Robert Altman's Kansas City, and the following year he showed up as a cabbie in a made-for-TV movie called A Deadly Vision, also shot here in town. Shrugging at stereotypes, Garozzo also played a mobster named Don Ziti in a local production of the interactive play Joey and Maria's Wedding in 2002.

Garozzo isn't the first restaurateur to moonlight as a performer. The most famous was probably Lithuanian-born Harry F. Gerguson, who reinvented himself as Prince Michael Romanoff, a member of Russian royalty, even though he couldn't speak Russian. This legendary impostor got jobs as a "technical adviser" for movies and in 1939 opened his namesake Romanoff's restaurant on Rodeo Drive, where he held court until 1962. He also acted in more than a dozen films and TV shows. In a case of art imitating life, he was most frequently cast as a maitre d'.

In a case of life imitating art, Mike Garozzo was the victim of several local "gangsters" -- actually, a quartet of bumbling burglars -- who nearly burned down the original Garozzo's Ristorante last August 15 when they broke into an upstairs office and tried to open a safe with a power saw. Firefighters put out the blaze, but water and smoke damage did hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of damage to the first floor and kept the venerable brick building shuttered until renovations were finished earlier this month.

Although the place has been gutted and redone, the new version feels just as intimate -- some say claustrophobic -- as it always has. Garozzo has installed some padded benches in the foyer and put a banquette along the northern wall in the front dining room, but he plans to take that out to make room for more tables. He's also put up a lot more framed black-and-white family photographs, including several of cherubic little Mike himself, who was expertly posing for cameras before he could talk.

Garozzo's bravado is charming, but some St. Louis natives still raise their hackles when he claims that his restaurant is "where chicken spiedini began." They insist that the dish was firmly established in the city's Hill District restaurants decades ago. I've always assumed that Garozzo introduced the idea of a charbroiled marinated chicken on a spiedino -- a skewer or brochette -- to Kansas City, but he's convinced he invented the dish, or at least his incarnation of it, and introduced it to the world. "I never saw it anywhere else before I started making it," he says.

I can say only that I saw nothing like it in my youth, and I dined in dozens of family-owned Italian joints in as many cities. Garozzo's reminds me of those restaurants, with its big portions, liberal use of garlic, fabulous chilled salads and friendly service.

Until the 1970s, if an Italian restaurant offered chicken at all, it was probably fried. The late restaurateur Jasper Mirabile opened his first venue serving spaghetti with meatballs and fried chicken; ditto for the long-gone Il Pagliacci and Gaetano's.

Garozzo, though, has taken the concept of grilled chicken chunks to a new level. His moist, marinated hunks of breast are lightly breaded and charbroiled, then laid on a bed of fettuccine drenched in a silken Alfredo sauce. His kitchen even puts out a decadently fattening version called the Atkins Diet Special -- the same Alfredo sauce served with prosciutto and artichoke hearts but no pasta.

On the night I dined at the newly reopened Garozzo's with my friends Liz, Elliott and Eddie, Liz was amused by the idea of an Atkins-inspired spiedini dish. When it came time to order, though, she chose a high-carb version, Spiedini di Pollo Samantha, getting a hefty mound of linguini along with the chicken, the artichoke hearts and lots of Alfredo sauce.

I had already ventured into sinfulness by sharing an appetizer of fried eggplant, sliced into pencil-thin lengths and served with Garozzo's distinctly sweet red sugo, a bland tomato sauce that nearly everyone I know adores. Not me, but I don't even like my own mother's version of this "tomato gravy."

Eddie complained that the sugo tasted like tomato juice but inexplicably ordered veal parmigiano, which swims in the stuff. "The veal's kind of chewy, too," he whined. Not that I cared, having already recognized his culinary masochism. Happily, I made a far better choice with the superb Tilapia alla Fresca, a flaky fillet of broiled fish heaped with a sensual mound of diced tomatoes, capers, onions and fresh oranges. Elliott let me share his juicy Bistecca Salvatore alla Siciliano, a big slab of tender porterhouse basted in garlic and olive oil.

It was a Sunday night; this location is keeping Sunday hours for the first time in 15 years. Garozzo is luring diners with a Sunday-only special -- half-price bottles of wine -- which encouraged Liz and Eddie to split a decent bottle of Chianti. Feeling happily tipsy, Liz followed her cannoli with a cinnamon-scented coffee-and-liqueur concoction called Christmas in a Cup, which had her belting out an aria from Tosca as we pushed her toward the door.

A few nights later, I returned with my friends Bob and Lou Jane, who immediately finished off a stuffed artichoke and a luscious bowl of meaty pork neckbones -- the best I've had in town.

Equally enjoyable was my own grasso grande bowl of ziti con broccoli alla Ballano, with its spicy tomato-cream sauce, and Bob's Spiedini Pereira, a succulent, skewered beef dripping with garlicky amogio sauce. Lou Jane's veal, sautéed with nutty-sweet Marsala wine, mushrooms and green peppers, was fork-tender and so rich she could barely finish it.

That didn't stop her from ordering dessert. She demanded a slab of German chocolate cake, which wasn't that good and had obviously come from an outside bakery. Only the cannoli, filled with whipped ricotta cheese, nuts and chocolate, was made in Garozzo's kitchen. Still, a couple of the imported desserts were standouts -- particularly a fluffy square of light and creamy amaretto torte. It's the kind of intoxicating dessert that could inspire sensual fantasies, particularly if, say, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie were sharing the torte with you. Now there's an idea for a movie!

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