Eleven miles away, another restaurant closed the same night. Joseph Avelluto, the patriarch of his own tiny restaurant empire, had decided that it was time to say arrivederci to his 9-year-old Il Trullo restaurant in Overland Park. He loved the intimate, more upscale little restaurant, but it had become increasingly costly to maintain. So after the New Year's Eve revelers finally left, he turned off the lights and locked the doors for good.
The end of Il Trullo came as a big shock to its fans, including me. In fact, I had just written a positive review of the place earlier that month ("Come to Papa," December 2, 2004). Did Avelluto know he was going to close even then? I reminded myself that this wasn't the first time that Avelluto had shut down one of his restaurants does anyone remember Portecchia? That was Avelluto's first attempt at an upscale Italian restaurant more than a dozen years ago, and, though not particularly fancy, it was too sophisticated for a Lenexa strip center.
But something happened in the Avelluto family between New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day, because Il Trullo reopened in March 2005, with a very big difference. Now Joe Avelluto Jr. was running the operation, and Cole Mowry was in the kitchen.
"I was between jobs and I ran into Joe's wife, Metissa," Mowry says. "She told me Joe was looking for a chef. So I called him up."
Mowry has worked at Il Trullo for the past 19 months, and I waited nearly that long to go back to see what changes he'd made. Now I'm kicking myself for waiting so long. The combination of the younger Avelluto and the talented Mowry is a very good one for Il Trullo. The food, which was always first-rate, is even better now, and the menu has been trimmed to focus on a limited number of pasta, seafood and meat dishes, with several more off-menu daily specials.
Some of Il Trullo's regulars don't even bother with the menu or the specials. Joe Jr. encourages diners to come in, unfurl their napkins and say, "Feed me." Seriously.
"We call it either a tasting or a feeding," Mowry says. "Joe gets an idea of what the table wants to spend, and we just start bringing out food. It's smaller portions of items on our dinner menu, or sometimes it's things we don't even have on the menu. We just make special things from some of the fresh ingredients we have on hand that night. Maybe a unique risotto or a pasta."
The average price of such a feast runs about $40 to $60 a person, which sounded far too costly to me on my first return to Il Trullo in late August. I took Bob and Marilyn with me, and it turned out that I would have spent less if we'd chosen to go with the menu-free program but I'm getting ahead of my story.
Bob and Marilyn both love Italian food, so they were eager to try anything new on the Il Trullo menu. Our server pointed out the newest starter, tiella del formaggio caprino: plump baby peppers stuffed with goat cheese and roasted in the wood-burning oven. They were fabulous, particularly with slices of crusty bread covered with creamy, cold ricotta cheese. Since it was the end of the summer, Mowry was still offering a light salad that had been a hit earlier in the season, a jumble of pink watermelon, watercress and bits of goat cheese. "When this goes off the menu," Bob said, "I'll know summer's over." And in a week or so, it was.
That night's zuppa had more of an autumn flavor, a creamy yellow concoction of fresh corn and roasted leeks. We alternated sips of this lovely cold soup with bites of hot, crispy pizza capricciosa. In Italy, this would mean a crust topped with ingredients chosen capriciously, but Mowry's version is the traditional Roma version, with mozzarella, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and prosciutto. Everything but the hard-boiled eggs.
Marilyn and I shared Mowry's succulent and tender wine-braised short ribs and a big bowl of tagliatelle in a cream sauce made with leeks, smoked prosciutto and the lightest touch of potent gorgonzola. Bob took a small taste of the pasta, but he was more absorbed in that night's beef special, a thick Kansas City strip rubbed with olive oil and grilled al forno in the white-hot oven.
When the dishes were cleared away, Marilyn wanted only coffee. "I don't crave sweets," she told us. But she soon ate her words, along with more than a few bites of a citrus sorbeto (served in a frozen, hollowed-out lemon) and a chocolate mousse semi-freddo with almond biscotti. Mowry's skill at culinary seduction is powerful.
I returned a month later with my friends Scott and Mike, who live near Odessa, Missouri, and don't get a chance to eat excellent Italian fare unless they make an occasional foray to Lidia's. "Why don't you try the tasting menu this time?" Joe asked. Why not? I thought.
First came a slender slice of cantaloupe sheathed in tissue-thin prosciutto, followed by roasted tomatoes with milky house-made mozzarella and, for each of us, a single square nearly wallet-sized of ravioli à la zucca, the pasta filled with pumpkin squash and splashed with a savory sage-and-brown-butter sauce.
Next came a not-so-small portion of gnocchi floating in an intoxicating cream sauce thick with gorgonzola, leeks, mushrooms and walnuts. After this, Mike was getting full, but the plates kept coming: a piece of amazingly flavorful, flaky black cod sautéed in lemon oil and basil; slow-cooked rillettes of fork-tender veal heaped on a polenta cake with tomato jam; and an oven-roasted pork loin rolled around a filling of spicy pork sausage.
This really was a more lavish feast than I'd expected, and I shuddered at the thought of the bill. But why worry about money until after the dolce, right? There was a feather-light lemon ricotta sponge cake and then, with coffee, a plate of Italian cookies to share: soft chocolate drops, crunchy polenta shortbread, anise-flavored squares and crispy amaretti (cookies flavored with the aromatic almond liqueur). By this point, we were comfortably stuffed and only nibbled on a few cookies before the server boxed up the rest for Scott and Mike to eat on the ride back to Odessa.
When the check arrived, I gulped down the dregs of my coffee and hesitantly peeked at the total. I had to look twice. Before tipping, our dinners averaged about $35 each, which seemed shockingly inexpensive considering all the different courses we'd shared.
"Do many people take advantage of this deal?" I asked Joe Avelluto on our way out the door.
"Our regulars who know about it do," he told me. "Some of them call in and tell me that's what they want to do. Others just come in and won't look at the menu."
In any case, every dish arrives as an unexpected treat at the new Il Trullo. Il Trullo