Kansas City has earned a national reputation as a lively and creative food town. Barbecue is king. Leading restaurants celebrate Midwestern cuisine and make inroads with creative applications of locally sourced ingredients. Various ethnic cuisines are well-represented. All that is well and good, but what Kansas City really needs is more restaurants like Cucina della Ragazza. Opened three months ago in a small corner storefront in Westport that once housed Broadway Cafe’s coffee-roasting operation, Cucina della Ragazza (signage also calls it Ragazza Deli & Wine) is a small, intimate room that breaks no real new ground but aims to please with a nicely priced, modest menu of comfort foods. Although a full dinner menu is available only three nights a week, Ragazza serves lunch six days a week and offers snacks and small plates ( spuntini
in Italian) from 2 to 7 p.m. most days. With five tables, a small bar and a little seating area by a fireplace — all beneath an antique tin ceiling — the restaurant exudes a great deal of cozy, casual charm. There always seems to be laughter at the bar. Every neighborhood should have something like it.
Owner Laura Norris draws from her family’s Italian heritage — as well as a quality period of experiencing Italian delis in the Bronx — to present carefully prepared traditional dishes with a sort of disguised simplicity. A Kansas City native, she says she grew up around a family table where Italian food dominated, though her mother never wrote down any recipes. Her background is in architectural preservation and nonprofit work, but, she says, she was looking for change and, encouraged by friends, she took the leap into living the dream and doing something with her love of food and wine.
For lunch one day, an Italian sausage soup, infused with a lively medley of spices, took off the winter’s chill. A bowl of rigatoni Bolognese was a filling portion slathered in red sauce with chunks of ground beef and more sausage — though the pasta, not made in-house, was noticeably over-boiled, or a little softer than al dente. A butternut squash soup was nicely creamy and hinted of pepper, onion and other emulsified veggies, although it’ll soon be replaced on the menu by a white gazpacho.
A variety of sandwiches fills out the lunch menu. Most are typical Italian combinations of meat and cheese — such as the salami, capicola, mortadella and provolone panino, whose pepper-relish accent brought a little sweat to the brow (not a bad thing, I should add). Also alluring was the Tuscan chopped liver — a healthy mound of the perfectly textured, rich-flavored meat on toast along with Dijon mustard and arugula.
At dinner, my party of four managed to make our way through most of the menu’s highlights. For starters, a trio of crostini took hunger’s edge off, especially one spread with a white bean puree and another with arugula and walnut pesto. A huge meatball in red sauce was another can’t-miss spuntino. OK, three for three: the bresaola roll was an inspired starter, wrapping thin-sliced cured beef with arugula, Parmesan and a lemony exclamation point.
For entrees, nicely grilled shrimp sat atop a simple fettuccine in white wine sauce with capers. Eggplant Parmesan turned out to be a lovely layered dished — grilled eggplant, cheese and tomato sauce, much like a square of lasagna — served in a small iron skillet. I was most won over by a tender pork chop, brightened by a squeeze from a grilled lemon half and elevated by a delicious side of white and sweet potato gratin. And also by the chicken saltimbocca, juicy and tender breast meat paired with prosciutto and served over creamy polenta.
I don’t remember being offered Ragazza’s house-made cheesecake — perhaps it was sold out on that Saturday night. But we each downed a little amaretto cookie, which seemed to be the perfect Italian kiss to the evening’s repast.
Norris said she’s thinking about adding another dinner night. It seems to me her place is off to a good enough start to support that. As I noted, Norris is not exactly shooting for culinary stardom right now. There is much virtue in her adventurous kind of modest and appealing comfort. Brava.
Cucina della Ragazza
301 Westport Road
Food: ★★½ Well-made, down-to-earth, Italian-inspired comfort food.
Service: ★★½ A small friendly place frequently full and a little harried.
Atmosphere: ★★★ Cozy and casual, with a homelike feel.
Hours: Full dinner menu available 5-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday; small plates: 2-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$
Vegetarian options: White bean and other crostinis, eggplant Parmesan, pasta alla Norma, roasted beet salad.
Handicapped accessible: Yes, but narrow room might make for tight spaces for those in wheelchairs.
Parking: Street, small lot in back.
Kids: Small portions available on any dish.
Noise level: Reasonably lively but not overpowering.
Reservations: Recommended for dinner on weekends.
Star code: ★ Fair, ★★ Good, ★★★ Excellent, ★★★★ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
Bresaola roll, $6
Meatball Grande, $7
Tuscan chopped liver sandwich, $7
Chicken saltimbocca, $15
Grilled pork chop, $17
Eggplant Parmesan, $12
What to drink
Not many small restaurants, or large ones for that matter, put the kind of care and focus onto a wine list as Laura Norris has done at Cucina della Ragazza. Most of the wines on her short list are well-chosen and value-priced Italians. Those who fear the odd and unfamiliar names would do well to sample. Here’s a simple start: For a white, pick the Villa Matilde Falanghina, a smooth and balanced wine with surprising body ($8 a glass, $28 the bottle); and/or go straight to the heart of the Piedmont with a big and spicy pour, such as the Prudottori del Barbaresco Nebbiolo della Langhe ($42 the bottle). House cocktails involve creative combinations of vodka, limoncello, prosecco and other ingredients. Full bar also available.