On a recent Friday evening at Ricco’s Italian Bistro in Overland Park, server Rob greeted our table of four with a wide smile and plenty of patter. Far from being forced — we’ve all suffered through the occasional scripted server — the 12-year veteran of the cozy neighborhood eatery that’s tucked into the Shops at College Village at the intersection of College Boulevard and Quivira Road was endearing.
“If you like your meal, my name is Rob,” he said playfully, describing the chef’s special, flaky barramundi fish with a side of ghost pepper risotto. “If not, I’m Sam.”
Clever or not, welcoming or not, a restaurant has to stand on its own merits. During a previous visit I made to Ricco’s following a Sunday afternoon concert at nearby Johnson County Community College, the 13-year-old restaurant aimed to please. My strawberry-spinach salad (topped with an optional salmon filet) was perfection, sporting a pleasing ratio of plump strawberries, toasted pine nuts and bleu cheese crumbles. The friendly, non-intrusive service was memorable, too, and the menu was fairly priced.
In the spot formerly occupied by a locally owned favorite known for wood-fired pizzas, three families collaborated in 2003 to open Ricco’s Italian Bistro. With 75 seats, including the bar and high-tops, plus a 15-seat patio, Ricco’s has earned its stripes as a neighborhood destination. Which, according to one partner, Tim Tobin, was the trio’s goal: an attractive spot defined by quaint ambiance and stellar food.
“My wife, Judy, and I worked for years at McDonald’s corporate and when we moved to Kansas City, operated a Goodcents franchise for 15 years,” Tobin said. “Along with Kris Brentano, who with her husband are part owners of Tanner’s Bar and Grills, located throughout Kansas City, and Joe Santaniello, who passed away in February, we overhauled the restaurant, breathing new life into it.”
The partners had diverse restaurant experience but agreed that Ricco’s needed the elements to woo diners into becoming regulars.
“The first step to a charming interior came when Judy and Kris found blown-glass pendant lights made by a Lawrence, Kansas, artist,” Tobin said. “I remember thinking, ‘Are these lights important?’ ”
The distinctive fixtures — which cast a warm glow throughout Ricco’s — are a conversation piece 13 years later. Add to that longtime employees — many of whom have been at Ricco’s since 2003 — for what Tobin call’s the Ricco’s experience.
“Customers appreciate our approachable and well-trained staff and, because we don’t have a high turnover, there’s an easy familiarity,” he said.
Dishes like the Rob-recommended three-cheese Sonoma Torte appetizer ($9.99, ample for four) served with house-made rosemary flatbread and the spicy ghost pepper penne entrée with Italian sausage ($14.99) continue to please Ricco’s hundreds of regulars and wow new diners, such as my newlywed niece, Sarah, and her husband, Craig. Accompanying my partner, Les, and me for a leisurely dinner, the couple was anxious to find restaurants with creative flair near their newly purchased Overland Park home.
As Rob expertly guided us through our food-lusting evening and with dueling forks in hand, we delighted in discovering well-executed dishes. Crisp, chilled house salads drizzled with scratch dressings (the sweet black pepper vinaigrette was a standout); balsamic-glazed salmon paired with a creamy mushroom risotto and sautéed veggies ($17.99); veal scallopini with linguine ($18.99) that boasted a lovely starchy-acidic balance; and well-seasoned barramundi that stood up well against the ghost pepper risotto’s mildly aggressive heat.
From Rob’s tempting tray we chose three sharable desserts — moist, tangy lemon cake and Italian favorites, tiramisu and cannoli. As we finished the sweets, he paused at our table, balancing a restocked tray.
“Couldn’t resist,” he said, with his signature playfulness, pointing at a towering wedge. “Sweet potato-maple cake.”
Although we politely declined, the newlyweds decided to try that on their return trip to Ricco’s — which, as Sarah emphasized to Craig and Rob, would be soon.
Reach Kimberly Winter Stern at email@example.com
Ricco’s Italian Bistro
Location: 11801 College Blvd., Shops at College Village, Overland Park
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to Midnight Friday-Saturday and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Don’t Miss: Calamari with marinara sauce appetizer ($9.99); chicken limonata ($16.99); seafood combo in spicy white wine sauce ($18.99); baked manicotti ($10.99 - $13.99); blue cheese-crusted filet ($28.99); Garbage Truck oak wood-fired pizza ($9.99 - $13.99).
Gluten-Free: Balsamic-glazed salmon ($17.99); mushroom risotto ($11.99).
Vegetarian: Bruschetta appetizer ($7.99); strawberry spinach salad ($7.99 - $9.99); Mediterranean salad ($7.99 - $9.99).
Specials: Check out Spaghetti Sundays, Appetizer Mondays, Pizza Tuesdays, Lasagna and Wine Wednesdays, Martini Saturdays and Weekend Chef Specials.