Kansas City still has lots of good, unpretentious neighborhood Italian restaurants: Mike Garozzo's place in the northeast; Garozzo's nephew Salvatore's spot in Independence; Felitza's in Kansas City, Kansas; Johnny Cascone's and Villa Capri in Overland Park; Osterio Il Centro and Accurso's near the Plaza; the iconic, 52-year-old Cascone's Restaurant north of the river.
I might add Tony Gallo's three-year-old Lucia's Ristorante & Bar to that list if the place were located in something resembling a neighborhood. Unfortunately for Gallo, he might have chosen one of the worst locations in Liberty for a casual, family-friendly Italian joint. I got lost on my first foray looking for the place; we finally had to call the restaurant, and Gallo patiently gave us directions back to 291 Highway from God only knows where. It was a little easier to find on my second trip, only because I remembered to look for Crowley Furniture.
Lucia's is in the same shopping center as Crowley, just down from the CVS Pharmacy, between a nail salon and a beauty parlor. "It is hard to find us," Gallo admitted to me later. "It's been a huge problem."
Obviously people are finding Tony's place, and some have been absolutely charmed by it. I wasn't bowled over by the place, possibly because Gallo's home-style Italian fare is exactly what I grew up eating.
My friend Ned knew what kind of restaurant Lucia's was going to be even before he set foot in the place. "It has a jukebox," he said on the drive north. "And vinyl tablecloths and, I hope, straw-wrapped Chianti bottles on the table with candles stuck in the rims."
He was right on all points except the candles. Lucia's dining room is a roomy affair (it seats nearly 100 customers) illuminated by neon beer signs and, somewhat disconcertingly, fluorescent lights tinted with some kind of pink filter, giving it the rosy glow of a Doris Day musical. And, yes, there's one of those modern touch-screen jukeboxes by the front door.
With regard to the Chianti: Little unopened bottles on the tables serve as both a decorative touch and a sales tool. Ned was delighted enough by the mini-flagon to order one, and he sipped it with relish as we buttered slices of soft, warm bread and swirled fat, fried mozzarella pegs into Gallo's fine, herb-rich tomato sauce.
Gallo is a self-taught cook without much formal restaurant experience (his family does own Teresa's Drive-In, that wonderful vintage burger stand on Truman Road), but he does remarkably well putting out a lot of meals with a small staff.
"This wine, this place," Ned said grandly, "reminds me of my youth. This is what Italian restaurants were like in Florida in the 1950s. No glamour, just Frank Sinatra on the jukebox and good food. You know what I mean?"
I wasn't about to pass judgment on the food based on a friggin' mozzarella stick, but I knew where he was coming from. Lucia's was low-key enough that it didn't seem to matter that the menu was laminated in none-too-clean plastic and most of the appetizers were fried. I mean, I didn't care. Once I finally sat down (the chairs are those black seats designed for 1960s banquet halls), I was ready for a little culinary time travel.
Iceberg lettuce salads arrived in chilled bowls — two points for that touch — soaked with Tony's dressings. "They're not all homemade," our server told us. "But the good ones are." The good ones included the ranch and Italian and possibly the Caesar, but the waitress wasn't sure.
Ned ordered eggplant parmesan. Based on the menu description, he expected it to be served in the traditional casserole style, floating in tomato sauce and covered with a layer of bubbly melted cheese. But Ned's dish was a plate of plump, pillowy, small slices of eggplant, beautifully fried so they weren't too crispy or too greasy. No tomato sauce, no cheese. I kind of liked the offbeat presentation.
My plate of chicken Amogia had a pounded bird breast swimming in a lemon-and-olive-oil sauce with enough garlic to frighten off a coven of vampires. Luckily, I like garlic and loved the dish, but it's not for the timid. Even better was my side dish: a big bowl of fettuccine in a creamy Alfredo sauce. Loved it, but there was enough leftover sauce for two more bowls of pasta.
A few nights later, my friend Bob's response to the place was the opposite of Ned's. He admitted that he liked the Godfather collage on one wall (the others are hung with Gallo family photos) and the plate of fried zucchini, but the slow service annoyed him. On the night we dined with his sister Frankie, the place was relatively busy, and it took 20 minutes before our server even acknowledged our table. Luckily, the bartender brought out our drinks and took the appetizer order so Frankie and I — we were ravenous — could snack on something before dinner finally arrived.
The kitchen, in fact, was a lot more together than our dizzy waitress.
The fit Frankie, who watches her calories, had ordered a simple dish: linguine marinara made with Gallo's chunkier tomato sauce, slightly spicy with a splash of red pepper flakes. "Just the right amount of heat," Frankie said approvingly.
Bob was less taken with the chicken Lucia, a bowl of that rich fettuccine Alfredo with chopped-up artichoke hearts and sliced grilled chicken. "It's a gloppy mess," he sniffed. That was the very reason I liked it, having taken several bites after finishing my own slab of meat-and-cheese lasagna. The chicken wasn't fabulous, but it was nice enough. It tasted like some grandmother's recipe — not mine — and that's what makes Lucia's Ristorante appealing.
That grandmother is Gallo's. He cooks with Lucia's recipes, and he obviously puts his heart and soul into his work. It's an old-fashioned neighborhood restaurant that just needs a neighborhood. "This wine, this place, reminds me of my youth."