The word “local” has become as ubiquitous in restaurant lexicon as “grilled” or “gluten free.” Most of the time it is about the origin of ingredients, but that is only one factor.
The 3-month-old Artego Pizza sits little more than a stone’s throw from 39th Street’s restaurant row corridor, but in a location known primarily for the ghosts of restaurants past.
Owner Joe Perez has Kansas City DNA. He’s a local native and former Kansas City Chief with a restaurant background as part of the group that opened the Jacobson in the Crossroads. When planning Artego, Perez wanted to infuse some local feeling into the pizza experience.
From the neighborhood to the ingredients, local can take on many different manifestations in a restaurant. You can’t help but be drawn in by the massive murals of rock stars like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and the Beatles, all painted by local artist Alexander Austin.
The multi-textured 3-D walls of salvaged wood crates, nearly 1,200 planks installed by hand, make each piece of art visually pop and offset the modern steel tables and bar.
The hands-on approach permeates the space, perhaps most evident in the steel bar, which Perez found in a scrap yard, sealing and restoring it himself to make a fine centerpiece. The craftsmanship gives you a feeling that extends to the food.
The owner and chefs experimented with different crusts before finding the blend of soft and chewy they were looking for. This resulted in dough made daily that ferments for five hours before being shaped and cooked to order. They also offer a crunchy, toothsome thin crust that suits some pizzas quite well.
I tried the popular Formaggio pizza on my first visit, topped with Alfredo sauce, Parmesan, Romano and cream cheese, an unusual pizza topping. On the recommendation of our server, we ordered it on the house thick and airy crust, which she described as similar to pan pizza. The crispy bits of blistered crust were basted in garlic butter and sprinkled with seasoning they call “fairy dust.” I pictured the Jimi Hendrix painting nodding in approval.
The cheese and small cubes of cream cheese were nicely caramelized. The buttery crust and cheese extravaganza had an overall effect that was a bit rich and sweet for my tastes, though others enjoyed it. They offer a half pizza, called a mezzaluna, that I would recommend if you’re not feeling that level of decadence.
I found the popular 39th Street to be a lavish take on the classic combination pizza, and a much better muse for the thick, chewy house crust. The mix of Scimeca’s local Italian sausage, beef, pepperoni, mushroom and olive was a perfect balance of flavors and textures.
I tried the Stockyard on a follow-up visit. It was topped with pepperoni, salami, ground beef, Italian sausage and bacon. While it makes for a hearty meat-lovers meal on a thick crust, it lacked the nuance of others I tried, mainly because the smoky bacon drowned out the other meats.
I found the thin crust offered a better balance to some of the other specialty pizzas, providing a subtler base that allowed certain ingredients and sauces to stand out on their own.
The Padrino is a meatball pizza with roasted garlic, red pepper and onion. The large bits of meatball complemented the barely cooked onion and pepper to make a simple but satisfying slice. The roasted garlic made for a restrained echo that lingered after each bite.
The Pesto Pollo had a similar effect; its pesto sauce base and chiffonade of fresh basil had a light, fresh touch that enhanced the flavors of artichoke and smoked chicken.
The pasta Angelina showcases Artego’s Old World approach with its velvety Bolognese sauce blanketing rigatoni. The small flecks of diced carrot studding the sauce added a slight touch of sweetness. At $10.99, it’s an affordable bit of old school Italian comfort food.
The appetizer menu boasts a number of options. In addition to a huge meatball, there are chicken wings, fried mozzarella, garlic cheese sticks, hummus and salads. The fried mozzarella was an almost comical low point; each cheese stick was no bigger than a Lego block.
The Caprese salad was much better, especially for a dish featuring out-of-season tomatoes. Perez plans to expand the use of seasonal, local vegetables in the future, so I imagine this dish will get even better as summer rolls around.
The biggest surprise I found was Artego’s chicken wings, which come in half and full orders, $6.99 and $10.99 respectively. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill tiny chicken wings. Each one was a whole wing, drumstick, flat bones and wing tip, fried and tossed in a garlic buffalo sauce that deftly toed the line between heat and flavor.
There are two dessert options, both featuring the house-made dough. One is dough pockets stuffed with Nutella and the other with cream cheese and honey. By the time you get to the end of the meal, though, it is easy to feel way too full to even contemplate more dough.
Artego has the casual but cool atmosphere and commitment to well-made food that may extend the 39th Street restaurant row a few blocks east. Like its modern-leaning barbecue neighbor Q39, Artego is crafting its own distinctive local identity while serving a new twist on pizza to Kansas City.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef and freelance restaurant critic who lives in Kansas City. To reach him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
900 W. 39th St.
Food: Two stars. A fairly diverse menu of specialty pizzas, pastas and sandwiches made with good ingredients. Some very nice standout dishes for certain, with some others still works in progress.
Service: Two stars. The service is attentive and informed on the food and drink menus, though the inconsistencies of a new restaurant like wrong orders or minor service hiccups do pop up at times.
Atmosphere: Three stars. From the rock star murals to the reclaimed wood and steel that adorn the walls and surfaces, Artego puts forth a welcoming vibe that evokes a cool, fun neighborhood dining experience. Equally good place for a happy hour drink and bite or a night out with friends.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with bar open later
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$
Vegetarian options: Vegetable pizzas (not vegan) like Veggie Market and the Margherita, as well as customizable pizzas. Appetizers like hummus, green and Caprese salads present lighter choices.
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: Shared parking lot
Kids: No separate children’s menu, but a variety of pizza options perfect for family-friendly sharing as well as half orders of appetizers and pasta entrees.
Noise level: Medium to high, with hard surfaces in the dining room, TVs in each corner and music booming most of the time. The decibels rise as the crowds build, but it retains the feel of a lively neighborhood spot rather than an overly raucous bar.
Star code: One star: Fair, Two stars: Good, Three stars: Excellent, Four stars: Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ 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.
Jumbo Chicken Wings | $10.99 ($6.99 half order)
Caprese Salad | $9.99 full ($5.99 half order)
Pesto Pollo Pizza | $15.99 medium
Padrino Pizza (thin crust) | $17.99 medium
Nutella Pockets | $6.99
What to drink
The beer selection at Artego Pizza has the usual domestic suspects ($3.50) alongside a handful of craft brews ($4.50). The Tall Boy Tuesday special features 16-ounce cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon for $2 all day.
They feature a Wednesday wine special with half off all bottles and wines by the glass.