At 27, Spino is pretty young himself, and his brother, Vito, who now helps him run the restaurant for his parents, is only 23. Vito wasn't even born when his father, Anthony Jr., turned a downtown saloon called The Soup Kitchen into a full-service restaurant in 1979. The Soup Kitchen, operated by Anthony III's grandparents, was a modest affair: a bar, 13 stools and grandmother Antoinette's daily lunch specials. That original building still exists but was incorporated as the banquet room for the new Anthony's back when Jimmy Carter was president and Kansas City still had a professional basketball team and the country's first all-disco radio station.
Downtown Kansas City still had a glimmer of life when the Spinos took a gamble and built a new restaurant at the corner of Admiral and Grand. But the pulse was fading fast the once-thriving entertainment scene known as the River Quay, on the other side of the highway loop, had already gone from coolsville to ghost town. And things were equally grim a few blocks to the west, where the bawdy dives and strip clubs on 12th Street were slated for demolition and several big movie palaces and department stores had been either closed or razed.
Anthony's has outlasted most of its urban contemporaries, including the venerable Italian Gardens and Jennie's. Why? Maybe it's thanks to the little shrine to St. Jude the patron saint of hopeless causes mounted on the stone bluff facing the restaurant's parking lot. A friend of mine scoffs at that theory. "The reason Anthony's carries on," he insists, "is that it's the last real no-bullshit, smoker-friendly, unpretentious Italian-American joint left in town. You know what Buca di Beppo pretends to be? Anthony's is the real thing."
That point hit me like a ton of mostaccioli when I recently checked out one of the newer chain-restaurant operations near the NASCAR track, the Texas-based Johnny Carino's, which claims to "celebrate the simple values and colorful lifestyle of the Italian countryside" (according to its Web site) but is actually a slickly packaged version of an old-fashioned pasta palace ... like Anthony's.
Anthony's isn't physically old, but in terms of style and sensibility, it's much closer in spirit to the kind of no-frills neighborhood spaghetti joints that my parents loved in the 1960s. There's even a vintage cigarette machine at the entrance, and smokers get the better tables in the front dining room. (Cigarettephobes are whisked to the harshly lit back room.) There must be a powerful smoke-sucking device in the room because on the night I brought a couple of friends to dine there, Carol Ann who detests the smell of burning tobacco barely noticed the puffing pair in the next booth.
It had been years since Carol Ann or Patrick had eaten at Anthony's. They didn't even know it was still open. When we walked through the front door (after parking and genuflecting to St. Jude), we caught a few seconds of a screaming match between two street people on the other side of Grand. It was dusk, you see, a little late for joggers.
The light fixtures in the front dining room are outfitted with pink bulbs that presumably make every diner look younger. But not thinner, alas, so what the hell was I doing slathering a spongy piece of warm Roma bread with butter before I even ordered? I shamelessly ate three more slices before the appetizers arrived, and they weren't lightweight, either: heavily breaded hunks of fried calamari (and a little too chewy, despite the gorgeously crispy crust) and a pile of exceptionally delicious chicken livers. Patrick gave the livers the highest possible compliment when he announced, "They're better than Go Chicken Go."