Cascone’s Grill serves up a 78-year-old tradition

The scene behind the counter at Cascone’s Grill in the River Market on Saturday mornings fits somewhere between Vivaldi and vaudeville. Playful, exuberant and precisely timed.

At the center of it all — pacing in front of two gas-fired grills and cracking wise — is Frank Cascone, burnin’ and turnin’ up to a thousand eggs, 200 pounds of hash browns and 60 pounds of bacon or Mendolia’s Italian sausage.

For most folks, there’s a stack of thick, amply buttered slices of Italian toast and sometimes a pancake or two, and maybe a dish of marinara on the side.

“If your idea of breakfast is a jog and a power bar,” says Cascone, “this ain’t it.”

No sotto voce here.

But Cascone clearly enjoys cooking for and cajoling his customers, especially the regulars.

“Here, try this,” he says — more like an order than a suggestion. He shoves a plate of pizza bread toward a regular perched on a stool at the end of the counter. “I made it myself. I guarantee you’ll like it.”

Dark-haired, stocky and fit at 52, Cascone holds court most mornings during the breakfast rush hour from behind the counter at the grill’s latest location at 17 E. Fifth St.

Hanging around, in addition to family, friends and others, are old family photos from previous restaurants and, off to the side, a montage of characters from the “Godfather” movies.

In 2003, the family moved to the current location, which holds about twice as many customers as the grill’s former home, a tightly-packed 39-seat hallway across the street in the old market building.

“I loved that place,” Cascone says. “I could almost reach out and touch everybody from the grill.”

The waitresses don’t introduce themselves, and there’s nothing on the menu with the words “organic” or “low cal” in it.

“We serve a good basic breakfast,” Cascone says. “People, when they are driving here, they already know what they’re gonna get, so why change?”

While he enjoys satisfying his customers, Cascone draws the line at overdone hash browns.

“Everybody has their own idea about hash browns. For me, it’s the biggest problem I have in my entire business. A lot of people want ’em, crispy — overdone. You’d have to cook ’em all day.

“I like ’em the way they oughta be — moist, slightly puffy and cooked golden brown.”

Cascone has been known to reply to an order for well-done hash browns by tossing a potato chip at the offending customer. “Here, you want crispy hash browns, have one a these ”

Saturdays are by far the grill’s busiest breakfast days, and the line can stretch through the front door, into the outer lobby and, sometimes, out onto Fifth Street.

“Me and my brother, we sometimes have anxiety issues on Friday nights, especially in the summer,” Cascone says, uncharacteristically. “You know what’s comin’ and that there’s no way to avoid it. ‘I’m gonna work my off tomorrow and there’s nothin’ I can do about it.’ ”

The Cascone family includes Frank and older brother George — Frank refers to him as the true chef in the family. The Cascones have been feeding generations of Kansas Citians for 78 years, near the City Market and in the Northland and Overland Park.

The name Cascone first shows up in the city directory in 1918, and the first Cascone restaurant — a three-stool diner at 548 Gillis St., just a few blocks east of the current location — first shows up in the directory in 1933.

“My grandparents lived in an apartment upstairs,” Cascone says. “He threw newspapers in the morning before he’d open up the restaurant.”

His father was Sam Cascone, who died in 1992, and his mother was Vita, who died in 2002. They took over that first restaurant and moved it to the City Market area in the 1940s.

“She used to get fired by my dad on a weekly basis,” Cascone says of his mother. “My dad was the nice guy, but he was a workaholic. ‘Work as hard as you can,’ he’d say. ‘If you fall down from exhaustion, get up and keep working.’ ”

Cascone’s first memory of cooking is standing over a grill at age 11, balanced on a milk crate.

“My mom was a fabulous cook. She made all kinds of different dishes like cabbage rolls and stuffed peppers and stuffed pasta. A lot of our lunch menu is still based on her recipes.”

But, he added, “my dad never cooked at home, and my mom never cooked at the restaurant.”

Cascone’s fondest food memory, he recalls, was on Saturdays when his father would come home “all beat up after a long day.”

“Mom would go down to Scimeca’s on Independence Avenue and she’d get a half pound of fancy cheese, a half pound of capicola, a half pound of bologna, a half pound of salami, all wrapped up in that white deli paper.

“Dad would take pepperoni and slice it at an angle, and we’d have olives and celery and carrots.

“And then Mom would make this citrus salad. You gotta try this peel a lemon and a grapefruit and an orange, and you half moon it, you know cubes. And you throw ’em in a bowl with some celery and oregano and salt and pepper and Italian dressing and mix it around.

“She’d put it all on the table with two of those crispy loaves of bread from Scimeca’s. And we’d layer sandwiches with meat and cheese. It was a meal fit for a king.”

“I can’t remember when food wasn’t part of our everyday life,” Cascone says, “not just to live, but as part of a celebration.”