Restaurants, like any other kind of show business, must play to their audiences. But that's an art unto itself. Just ask Brian Miller. The dashing general manager of the four-month-old Chiusano's Brick Oven Pizzeria looks like a theatrical leading man because he is one. The star of several past shows at American Heartland Theatre and New Theatre Restaurant, Miller is semi-retired these days, auditioning occasionally while working full time at the pizzeria in the Legends entertainment complex.
Chiusano's Brick Oven Pizzeria is sort of the audition process, too. The casual restaurant, located in the former Ted's Montana Grill space, has been trying to find an audience since it opened in January. The good news for owner Robert Borberg, the brother-in-law of actress Alison Sneegas-Borberg, is that this neighborhood really needed a pizza restaurant. The bad news, in terms of creative fulfillment anyway, is that the Legends' demographic may not have much use for fancy pizza.
Like a Broadway producer ruthlessly cutting musical numbers from a show that isn't working, Borberg has introduced a new menu and sent some items packing. Gosh, it's hard to imagine that in the neighborhood where Sporting Kansas City and NASCAR are the brand-name attractions, no one was ordering the foie gras pizza, but there you have it. Also dropped from the chorus: the veal and the scallops, the osso buco and the mussels.
There is a Sporting KC pizza, and it's very good, topped with Italian sausage, garlic, Kalamata olives, mozzarella and marinated jalapeño peppers. It's the best-selling pie in the joint.
Borberg opened the pizzeria with his wife, the former Nancy Chiusano (it's pronounced kee-zahn-o), when they got a good deal to lease the vacant free-standing building that had been built — and very tastefully, with tile floors and Mission-style woodwork — for Ted Turner's steakhouse chain, in 2005. The interior is still snazzy. It looks like where you'd go to find a foie gras pizza. But the typical customers at Chiusano's — at least the ones I saw on my three visits to the restaurant — are families with small children.
On the Sunday night when I first ate here, though, the soundtrack wasn't Sesame Street but Saturday Night Fever. The satellite channel had been left on a brassy, all-disco station. I had no sooner bit into a mini-croissant (the "garlic knots" appetizer version is slathered with butter, olive oil, chopped garlic and basil) when I heard the dulcet tones of Cheryl Lynn wailing "Star Love." I hadn't heard it since 1980, when I watched a very fat drag queen lip-sync to the number in Fort Lauderdale. And I swear that I saw her clone at Chiusano's, eating fried ravioli in a booth on the other side of the restaurant.
"The disco music was an accident," Miller explained later. "Someone hit the wrong button. We normally play the Coffee House rock channel." I don't know that I want Bon Iver more than Cheryl Lynn when I'm at the Legends, but I'm funny that way.
Besides, the draw at Chiusano's is the pizza, which is very likable. The crust is remarkably light, but Borberg says his customers want to talk toppings, not dough. The closest his updated menu gets to exotic — after Borberg learned that people will duck a foie gras pie — is Kansas-raised elk sausage (which adorns the Snooty Coyote pie, along with bubbling brie and mozzarella). Between the game and the "brick oven" tag in the place's name, I expected the room to be fragrant with the smell of burning wood. But Chiusano's pizza oven is the round, candy-apple-red Remco Millennium 2000, and it looks more Jetsons than Neapolitan trattoria. (The "brick" is the heavy, round fired object that mechanically rotates inside the oven at a properly crust-scorching temperature.)