Italian restaurants can put you in your best dress or suit and bill you $22 for linguini, while other Italian eateries just ask you to have shoes and a shirt for $8 breadstick, salad, and pasta combos. Italian food has seemed to do what no other immigrant cuisine has been allowed to: bridge the gap between casual, inexpensive restaurants and dressy, fine dining food experiences. Even at Olive Garden, one can see the range of formalities displayed across the restaurant. Some couples are out for a fancy date night but sitting next to them is a couple of teen boys in t-shirts filling up on free breadsticks.
Italian food really is a culinary phenomenon. Think about French food — it is rarely a casual outing and almost always the occasion for a fancy date night. Now think about Chinese or Mexican food — this cuisine has, in the past, been treated as a casual and inexpensive meal (until a recent and necessary push for the culinary recognition it deserves). But Italian food has always served the community in a wide and respected range, even in the twentieth century when most immigrants, including Italians, were not treated well.
Like other immigrant communities, early in the twentieth century, there was a lot of prejudice towards the Italian people. Kansas City Magazine published a story about the Italian experience in a 1977 issue, in which a source recalled, “They’d arrest you if you were south of [the North End],” he said. “There were signs in windows that said, ‘No Italians May Apply.’”
Many Italian families immigrated to Kansas City from Sicily. There was a large port in New Orleans that families came through, looking for work. Kansas City drew many immigrants up north because of the jobs the railroad provided. From there, buildings and resources for the Italian community in Columbus Park were built. The Holy Rosary is a Catholic church whose parish was founded in 1891 still stands in Columbus Park today. This historic area and the Italian food culture live on in Kansas City today.
Though people from the “North End” experienced discrimination in the Kansas City community, Italian restaurants thrived throughout the KC area in the 1950s and ‘60s — not just casual “red sauce joints”, but well-respected restaurants that the business crowd made their regular lunch spots. This has continued in the present moment, with the variety of Italian food thriving all over the city, including the Northland.
One of the Italian restaurants started by a Sicilian family during that time was Jasper’s Italian Restaurant. Open in 1954, Jasper’s began as a small mom-and-pop shop with only eight tables. As the restaurant became more recognized, it transitioned to a more upscale Italian restaurant with tuxedo-clad waiters, busboys, and captains. This was until their move in 1997 when the family decided to make the restaurant more accessible and casual again. In the 1980s the Mirabiles also started their Italian deli, Marco Polo’s. This transition has created the Jasper’s and Marco Polo’s storefront we can visit today.
Jasper’s isn’t the only Italian restaurant that has been serving Kansas City for a few generations. Cascone’s in the Northland has also been open since 1954. Their lobby is adorned with family pictures to show customers the true history of Cascone’s. Scimecca’s is an Italian sausage company that has been in business for nearly one hundred years. Garozzo’s started cooking up traditional Italian food in Columbus Park 32 years ago. The list of Italian history in KC is long and delicious.
There are many well-established Italian restaurants in the area, but this doesn’t stop new ones from opening up. Joe and Michelle Brancato are re-establishing an old family business under the name Joe Brancato’s Italian Sausage & Market. Joe’s grandpa, Sam, originally helped run his family’s grocery store, Brancato’s Market, in Dallas. After marrying his wife, whose family was from Kansas City, he moved to the area and opened his own market under the same name in the Historic Northeast neighborhood in 1989, serving the community delicious, homemade Italian sausage until 2002. This new deli concept will use recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation from both sides of the couple’s Italian families, as well as new recipes they have created with an East Coast influence.
For people who want to taste this wide range of Italian foods in action, this year’s Festa Italiana, put on by the Kansas City chapter of Unico, is happening October 8th through the 10th at Zona Rosa. Many local Italian vendors will be serving up some ancient family recipes, while others will cook innovative Italian-American food.
There doesn’t seem to be a particular reason Italian food, in whatever setting, is so widely accepted and appreciated by the Kansas City community. But, Unico member Joe Nastasi seems to be onto something when he said, “When you think of Italians, you think of good food, good wine, and the joy of living.”
Maybe the Italian community has always been good at passing this feeling onto its customers. Maybe Americans developed a palate that Italian food fit into. Whatever the reason, we now live in a community that has an Italian dish for whatever mood or attire you’re in.
Italian staples in the Northland, pictured here:
Scola's Italian Cookies
A family-owned bakery with Kansas City roots, baking fresh bread, and classic Italian cookies
8002 N Oak Trafficway, Kansas City
Scimeca's Market & Deli
A sausage company known for their brats and meatballs, with a deli in North Kansas City
1611 Swift St., North Kansas City
Joe Brancato’s Italian Sausage & Market
A new standing-room deli with East Coast-style sandwiches, homemade sausages and signature ice cream
7315 North Oak Trafficway, Gladstone
La Bella Cucina Italian Market
A quaint market selling Italian wines, olive oils, imported pottery and anything you might crave from Italy
406 Main St., Weston