Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Cha Cha Vivace

The River Market's newest hot spot lives up to its name.

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One of my elderly uncles once confessed to me that when he was a young soldier, right before he was shipped off to Europe during World War II, he and a couple of other privates wound up in downtown Kansas City on a short leave. "It was a wild place in the 1940s," he whispered. "I had my eyes opened that weekend -- and I was from New York!"

I wanted to press him for all the juicy details, but my aunt came back into the room and the conversation went flaccid. My soft-spoken uncle's only other revelation came right before I left their house. He chuckled, shook his head and said, "I'll never forget that wild ol' Kansas City!"

Would he even recognize it now? Despite the occasional burst of violence outside a nightclub (such as Soakie's or the late Club Chemical), Kansas City's downtown is practically toothless in its old age compared with its vulgar and rowdy youth, when an 1878 editorial in The Kansas City Times blasted the fast-growing town as "a Modern Sodom." The city boasted a shockingly high rate of syphilis, unabashed public drunkenness and hookers turning tricks at bargain prices. The wildest spot in the whole bustling metropolis was between Third Street and Missouri Avenue, where city blocks were dominated by whorehouses, gambling parlors and saloons.

The neighborhood we now know as the River Market slowly went dead for a century, but it's experiencing a post-millennium renaissance, with expensive loft condominiums, an antique mall, snazzy little shops and the newest see-and-be-seen restaurant, Vivace. One of the restaurant's staffers, John Cuezze, might debate the theory that this north-of-the-loop neighborhood ever got too sleepy, because he had a great-uncle who played piano in one of the saloons that occupied the front half of Vivace. That poor relative was shot dead by a ricocheting bullet. "It was either 1928 or 1938," Cuezze says. "And in those days, there was still a brothel upstairs."

The building has been home to a wide variety of tenants (including a lesbian bar) over the past few decades. And if the ghost of Cuezze's great-uncle Phil is still hanging around, he's probably amazed at the changes that new owners JoAnne Cuezze (John's wife) and her business partner, Joe Amaro, have made. The original pressed-tin ceilings are still in place, but cozy, upholstered banquettes now line the southern wall, and one stretch of the long bar is a frost-covered, translucent slab straight out of the Ice Capades. It's a show in itself, complete with a revolving light display that turns the chilly surface from violet to lemon-yellow in less time than it takes to light up a Marlboro.

The bar is a good place to sit and smoke or sip a martini and just watch the action. And on one Saturday night, we got an eyeful: tan and fit George and Leslie Brett and their entourage; the politically connected Mission Hills doyenne Jackie Johnson dining with Bob Trapp, interior designer to the rich and famous; Arlen Wickstrum, the A-list hairstylist of the moment, with his entourage; and a large party of attractive young Italian-Americans drinking expensive champagne.

The place was so packed with beautiful people -- including the bartenders and serving staff -- that it nearly gave my friend Gia the vapors. "It's so refreshing to go to a restaurant where you want to have sex with three-fourths of the people you see," she said.

But the most impressive thing about Vivace is that the owners have managed to turn a vacant River Market venue into the hottest restaurant in town in less than ten weeks. Part of the success is its location, a huge draw for the Plaza-phobic set. But a lot of this restaurant's appeal is chef Joe Dimario's cuisine. Despite five pasta dishes, the garlicky lobster Sinatra and the veal saltimbocca, he insists that it's not Italian but rather "Mediterranean eclectic." In any case, it's stylish and sexy when it's good and utterly forgettable in the few instances it isn't.

Dimario's talent was the only reason to visit the Hannah Bistro and Café in Lee's Summit before it recently closed, and Vivace (the Italian word for lively) gives him a more interesting culinary canvas to tackle. He's still having a hard time getting his staff to understand some of the particolari of his creations, such as the stuffed-Roma-tomato appetizer -- a great concept that would be delectable if the risotto weren't nearly raw. But that's the only clinker on an appetizer list sporting light and crispy calamari, tissue-thin carpaccio shaved from pink beef tenderloin, and pillowy crab cakes loaded with lump crab and deftly flavored with parsley, garlic and cilantro.

On my first visit, with Bob and Lou Jane, we got so carried away with appetizers that we bypassed salads and went straight to the main courses. Lou Jane's lobster ravioli was draped in a vividly orange tomato cream sauce (made with chopped carrots and tomatoes) that had a surprising kick thanks to a healthy sprinkling of crushed pepper, garlic and shallots. Bob's superb grilled steak Vivace was juicy, incredibly tender and sensually slathered with melted gorgonzola butter. Alas, I was disappointed with my own choice -- veal saltimbocca Romano -- which was strangely chewy and flavorless, despite the fresh sage and supple Madeira sauce.

When I returned with Gia (and Bob, who insisted on going back), we again sat in the long, narrow back room (the nonsmoking section). It just felt more glamorous, with heavy, white, linen tablecloths and tall windows discreetly shaded with gauzy, blue sheers. It's a little less frenetic than the front room, though it's impossible to avoid watching as people stand in line to use the tiny bathrooms at the rear of the room.

"Just like being in New York's Little Italy," Gia said. We all shared a huge, terrific salad of fresh romaine tossed in a piquant amber garlic-balsamic vinaigrette and adorned with a baseball-sized hunk of flash-fried goat cheese encrusted with crushed pistachios.

"I love the interesting mix of people in here," Gia said, admiring a Nancy Sinatra look-alike with frosted pink lipstick and artfully ratted hair who was gliding across the room. Bob nodded in agreement, though he was more entranced with his flaky lobster Sinatra, which was dripping with garlic butter and pesto risotto. I had decided to take on Dimario's version of artichoke ravioli, which turned out to be less decadently rich than the Hannah's variation. Dimario drenched his pillows of artichoke-stuffed pasta with mellow carrot-tomato cream sauce, which not only improved my eyesight but lulled me into agreeing to order a rich dessert afterward.

Not all of the sweets on Vivace's pastry list are made at the restaurant, but the best one is: a glistening slice of pear tart floating on a silken puddle of caramel-flavored crème anglaise.

When we walked outside, music was blasting out the door of the Kabal nightclub down the street, and musicians were hauling their sound equipment in that direction. But what stunned us was the sight of young couples strolling -- strolling! -- around the sidewalks.

Maybe Vivace isn't just living up to its own name but spreading a lively energy around the old neighborhood, too.

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