Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Chronicles of Marinara

Strawberry Hill goes from Bosnian sausages to Eye-talian.

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Not long after I moved to Kansas City in 1984, I was introduced to a woman who asked if my last name was Italian. When I said yes, she smiled and said, "I'll bet you really like spaghetti and meatballs." It was such a bizarre comment, I let it slide. But a month or so later, I met another native Kansas Citian, and he asked the same type of question. "Are you eye-talian?" Before I could respond — No, I'm not eye-talian, but my grandparents came from Sicily — the man piped up, "I'll bet your mamma made some good lasagna."

It was such broad stereotyping of my family that I wouldn't have been a bit surprised if he had gone on to predict that my old man had been in the mob, my sister was a nun and my swarthy brothers ran around in wife-beaters and gold chains. For years the media have done an excellent job depicting Italian-Americans as being exactly those kinds of caricatures. I grew up watching them on TV. For the record, my late father was a wine salesman, my sister is an actress, and my two brothers don't own gold chains. And my "mamma," who isn't Italian, never made an edible pan of lasagna. But she was very good at making reservations at restaurants that did.

Maybe because our society has become more sensitive, I don't hear those stereotypical comments so often anymore. But when a friend of mine recently told me that several new Italian restaurants have opened in the metro, he added, "That should make you happy." Well, no more happy than if a new restaurant was serving Thai, Mexican or French cuisine. I'm just thrilled when a good restaurant opens.

And that brings me to Felitza's, the Italian restaurant up on Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, Kansas. This neighborhood's history was shaped by the Eastern European immigrants who settled here over a century ago, so an Italian restaurant in this venue is a sign of how the area is evolving. Goodbye, mild cevapi sausages; hello, spicy Italian ones.

The restaurant's location wasn't unknown to me. I had often eaten there in its previous incarnation as the Croatian dinette, Jennie's. The dining room doesn't look that different now, though the shelves of Eastern European groceries are gone. There are a dozen or so tables, hanging plants and a few unmemorable geegaws scattered here and there. There's not much in the way of décor, but the place is so dimly lighted, you won't notice the interior anyway.

Felitza's, named for the grandmother of its Mexican-born owners, husband-and-wife Roberto and Sonia Bautista, is already more than a year old. I kept hearing positive things about the place, but I wasted a lot of time actually getting there. Now that I have, I'm very happy to have discovered it. It's not perfect by any means, but the Bautistas serve the Italian dishes (and a couple of eye-talian ones) that prove one ethnic stereotype: No one leaves an Italian restaurant with an empty belly.

I was stuffed after both of my visits to Felitza's. I also was full of a sense of déjà vu. Roberto worked at his brother Juan's restaurant — Carmen's Café in Brookside — before opening his own place. So it's not surprising that many of that venue's intensely garlicky dishes would cross the state line. Roberto, who alternates between cooking and waiting tables, says there are similarities between the Carmen's menu and his own, but he insists, "I'm doing things my way."

His way means serving the same delicious dish of sautéed veal smothered in Alfredo sauce and artichoke hearts known as veal Sebastian at Carmen's. (Roberto calls it Veal Carmen.) And the marinated, broiled chicken skewers known as chicken spiedini Beatriz at Carmen's is chicken spiedini Gladys on Strawberry Hill. But what's in a name? If the dish tastes great, call it chicken spiedini King Kong, for all I care.

On the night I dined with Carol Ann, Douglas and Brooke, Carol Ann had to pull out her tiny key-chain flashlight to read the menu. The votive candles on the tables are as illuminating as a firefly's ass. Of course, if you're familiar with the fare at Carmen's, you may not need to even look at the menu, because Felitza's serves a nearly duplicate list of dishes: a handful of tapas, five versions of chicken spiedini, shrimp scampi, plenty of pasta in cream or tomato sauces, and a half-dozen beef choices.

On a good night, anyway. The night we were there, there was only one other table in the joint — six hungry men — and no beef. "We're out of all the steaks," the young waitress said, nodding her head toward the guy-crammed table. "We had a big order."

After ordering, we shared an incredibly rich appetizer of pesto-filled ravioli floating in a decadent Gorgonzola-cream sauce. We also dipped slices of spongy bread into the concoction of olive oil, basil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and Parmesan that's called "Italian butter" here. (One can order oil-wrapped squares of the real stuff if the garlic-and-oil creation is too Italiano. )

I raised my eyebrows when Douglas asked the waitress for a three-way. "A chicken spiedini three-way," he added quickly, noting that the dish included three versions of chicken spiedini: one slathered in punchy diablo sauce, another in creamy Alfredo sauce, and the third in a lemon-and-garlic concoction known in America as amogio (a word that I've never seen on a menu in Italy). It was his first culinary ménage à trois, and he loved it.

The menu describes Felitza's lasagna as homemade, with Italian meatballs, sausage and ricotta, but that sounds better than it tastes. It's a nice, hefty slab almost floating in red sauce in a big soup bowl, but the layers of meat and cheese fall apart pretty quickly, making for awkward (and messy) eating. Brooke agreed that the Bautistas need a more robust marinara. The thin, watery sauce slipped off her ravioli. "It's more of a soup than a sauce," she said.

Carol Ann scored with the best dish of the night, the veal Carmen. The meat was fork-tender and succulent and blanketed with a lush Parmesan-cream sauce. We shared a plate of shrimp scampi, but the crustaceans were overcooked and chewy. Still, we ate so much that dessert was impossible to contemplate.

"It's a very clean, unpretentious neighborhood restaurant," Carol Ann said as we left the place, "with bad lighting."

When I returned with Marilyn and Bob, the dining room was still dark, but much busier ... and noisier (including a toddler who screamed "Ma-ma" at ear-shattering intensity and a cell phone that rang constantly). But on this visit, the kitchen clicked on all cylinders. The Spanish-style appetizer, gambas a la plancha, was excellent. The bacon-wrapped shrimp were tender, and the mahogany-colored diablo sauce was vibrantly spicy.

Felitza's Caesar salad is made with an indulgent hand on the garlic press, which is fantastic if you like garlic as much as I do. It'll ward off colds and vampires. Bob loved that night's dinner special, a chicken breast stuffed with cheese and herbs. Marilyn got slightly tipsy, I swear, on the Checko's Rigatoni, laden with a vodka-laced tomato cream sauce. My veal piccata was divinely tender, but the amber-colored sauce (I held a candle over the dish to make sure I could see it) was a shade heavy on the lemon juice — not bad if you don't mind an extra citrusy pucker to your piccata. It's really veal lemonata.

Again, none of us could imagine eating dessert after such a heavy meal, though I was nearly seduced by the idea of spumoni, which is rarely offered by fancy Italian restaurants anymore. Gelato or sorbeto, yes. Spumoni, no. That's because the tricolor "Neopolitan" ice cream — unlike the actual delicacy from Italy's Piedmontese region, spumone, made with sweetened mascarpone cheese whipped up with rum and citron — is an Italian-American innovation, like Italian steak sandwiches and toasted ravioli (which are also on the Felitza's menu). And like me, I guess.

Being Italian-American isn't the reason I like spaghetti and meatballs. But it is a reason to like Felitza's, where, according to the owner, most of the clientele are not Italian. But they all eat like they are.

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