Dining » Fat Mouth

Meatballs and Mercedes

Americans love football and fancy cars as much as they love quasi-Italian food.

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One of the most popular meals at Buca di Beppo (see review) is spaghetti and meatballs. Different restaurants offer the dish in various sizes with their own particular seasonings, but trendier Italian spots, such as Lidia's (101 West 22nd Street) and Il Trullo (9056 Metcalf), don't even serve it. "It's not an Italian dish," says Il Trullo's John Avelutto. "Occasionally we have customers ask for it, but spaghetti and meatballs has never been on our menu."

At Jasper's (1201 West 103rd Street), customers can order the $8.95 mix-and-match Marco Polo Italian Dinner (a choice of different pastas served with meatballs, sausage, meat sauce or marinara) and get a hefty portion of very good spaghetti and meatballs, even if chef J.J. Mirabile agrees it's a purely American innovation.

When Robbi Jenkins, the newly imported chef at Lawrence's one-year-old PrairieFire (724 Massachussetts Street) offered meatballs as a special and sold out of them immediately, she added them to the permanent menu. But even saucy balls couldn't save the restaurant's fortunes: Owner Steve Wilson will close the restaurant permanently on Saturday, December 15.

"We couldn't generate the volume during the week that we had projected," Wilson says. "Why? We discovered that most of our customer base was coming from Kansas City and Topeka. Not Lawrence. It was easier to get patrons to drive forty miles than to cross the street!"

Wilson, who owns the building, is negotiating with Kansas City restaurauteurs to take over the space. "It needs a concept that's already loved and recognized in Kansas City," he says.

Closer to home, chefs Susan Rowzee and John Welch have left the Bluebird Bistro, which Rowzee purchased last March with Jane Zieha-Bell (who will continue to run the popular urban restaurant). "We realized that there were a couple of different philosophies going on in the restaurant, so we decided to bow out and let Jane do it," says Rowzee, who packed up her kitchen utensils on December 4. "We have some irons in the fire already -- either our own place or working with someone else. It all happened so suddenly. We just need a breather."

Things happened equally suddenly one November night at Piropos (1 West First Street in Parkville), when a patron went to pick up his coat after dinner and put on the wrong one. He left the restaurant carrying someone else's keys.

"When the patron discovered what happened, he was naturally upset," says Sam Silvio, the restaurant's general manager. "In fact, we all were. It's one thing to lose a coat, but this customer had also lost the use of his car and access to his house!"

Adding insult to injury, the coatless and keyless diner had tickets to attend a Chiefs game the next day. While the Piropos staff attempted to track down the man who had mistakenly grabbed the wrong coat (it was returned with the keys the next day), the restaurant's owner, Gary Worden, handed the upset diner his own keys -- to Worden's shiny new Mercedes.

"Gary just told him to use the car until we got his coat back," Silvio says. "And if he had to drive it to the stadium the next day, that was fine." Now that's what I call carry-out!

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