Carl DiCapo and the Italian Gardens: a helluva history

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Carl DiCapo
In 1953, Carl DiCapo was a young man working for the Kansas City offices of the Internal Revenue Service when he received a phone call from his brother-in-law Ralph Bonden. Ralph's brother Steve, the cashier at the Italian Gardens Restaurant over at 11th and Baltimore, had walked off the job. Since DiCapo had a head for numbers, could he come over and help out?

Carl went, all right, and stayed -- for nearly a half-century.

DiCapo, who ultimately owned an interest in Italian Gardens, would become the public face of the family-owned restaurant that was a fixture in downtown Kansas City for 70 years. DiCapo tells the story of the restaurant this Sunday, August 22, at 2 p.m. at the Central Library, 14 West 10th Street. The free event is preceded by a 1:30 p.m. reception featuring Italian cookies created by DiCapo's entrepreneur son, John David DiCapo. (Make reservations by calling 816-701-3407.)

Just a block south of the Central Library, there's a new enclosed parking lot at 1110 Baltimore where the brick building that housed the Italian Gardens from 1933 to 2003 once stood. Before that legendary restaurant opened, Johnny Bonden and his sister Theresa served Italian food at a restaurant called Il Trovatore on the second floor of a building at 13th and Walnut. This was in 1925, and the menu, like most Italian dining rooms of the era, included pasta, broiled chicken, steaks and chops.

A few years later, Bonden and partner Frank Lipari moved Il Trovatore to a bank building at 1531 Grand. That building is still standing and now operates as the Czar Bar (and, before that, Ron Megee's Late Nite Theatre).

The best-known of the family's restaurants, Italian Gardens opened during the height of the Great Depression on September 1, 1933. Bonden and Lipari had borrowed $1,500 from one of their waitresses ("She believed in them," DiCapo says) and the two original owners were so poor in those days, they shared one pair of good dress shoes. "When one worked out in the front of the restaurant, he wore the shoes and the other one worked in the kitchen," DiCapo said.

DiCapo's memories of Italian Gardens and Kansas City are gathered in the beautifully illustrated Italian Gardens: A History of Kansas City Through its Favorite Restaurant, which DiCapo co-wrote with his son John David and local author Frank R. Hayde (The Mafia and the Machine). Signed copies of the book will be available at Sunday's event.

In its glory day, the Italian Gardens was a magnet for celebrities, athletes and politicians: it was close to all the downtown hotels and theaters, and the modestly priced Italian cuisine lured in a who's-who of famous names. "Everyone from Mae West to John Dillinger," DiCapo tells me.

DiCapo's wife, Anita (better known as "Sugie"), wanted her husband to go to medical school and become a podiatrist, but became resigned to the fact that Carl had more passion for bucatini than bunions. "He loved the restaurant business," Sugie says. "And the customers who came to the restaurant loved him."

DiCapo, still dapper and engaging at 80, is still beloved, though he's now better-known for his fundraising efforts (for the Don Bosco Center and the World War I Museum, among others) than for his years at Italian Gardens. A terrific raconteur, DiCapo loves telling the story of the night a "little Italian boy" came to the front door of the restaurant crying, "Save me, please save me."

"We thought this kid was being mugged," DiCapo said. "So we let him in and saw thousands of teenage girls in the street chasing him. It was Frankie Avalon."

 

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