I learned all about the zesty revolution when a New York-based public relations agency, the Rosen Group, announced the winners of the "Sixty Best Zesty" restaurants in America. The list, compiled by roving food journalist John Mariani for the Dallas-based Chile Pepper magazine, includes four Kansas City restaurants in three different categories: barbecue (Arthur Bryant's, receiving first-place honors; Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, tenth on a list of ten restaurants); Mexican (Ortega's Mini Market and Restaurante, also in tenth place); and Italian (amazingly, Milano at Crown Center, number eight).
I asked a Rosen Group representative to tell me exactly what the "zesty movement" really was. Was it a culinary revolution or something more peppy, like Up With People? "It's a trend happening across the country," Shawna Seldon told me. "Foods are getting spicier and spicier."
That "trend" obviously hasn't made it to Kansas City, where most patrons prefer their food as bland as possible and restaurants please their customers' palates by toning down the spices and the chile peppers rather than heating them up.
As for Milano, the single "fancy" restaurant in the Crown Center food court, I would never have called it zesty. But it had been a long time since I'd eaten there. Perhaps it had grown zestier.
The restaurant's general manager, Mark Momany, hadn't heard of Milano's national honor and was confused by it. "Does it mean that we make better use of spices, or that we have dishes with fire?" he wondered.
Ironically, the newest Milano menu doesn't have any particularly spicy dishes at all for dinner and provides only two such possibilities for lunch: spaghetti tossed with olives, capers and red pepper flakes and an entrée of sausage, sweet peppers and polenta. At dinner, the fare is far milder.
But I had an excellent meal at Milano last week anyway, and discovered that chef John Korycki has given the formerly boring menu a sophisticated (if light-on-the-spices) makeover. Korycki has been at Milano nearly three years, but his biggest menu changes are recent. "He took it slow to integrate the restaurant's menu with his style of food," said Momany, who wanted to position the restaurant's fare closer to that of its Freighthouse District neighbor Lidia's and less "to the Olive Garden style of food."
It was a daring move given that Milano depends a lot on convention business. But Momany said feedback has been "overwhelmingly positive" with regard to the new menu, with its handmade pastas, creative pizzas (including a superb concoction of provolone, pears, gorgonzola, sage and walnuts) and truly regional Italian dishes rather than, say, spaghetti and meatballs.
The menu isn't that spicy, but business is zestier now.