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That’s amore: Ragazza Food & Wine is a cozy midtown hangout with tempting Italian fare

You know how much fun it is to watch your babies grow up? It’s bittersweet but also empowering to see them take on the world.

That has to be how Laura Norris feels now that her baby, formerly known as Cucina Della Ragazza, has reopened to great fanfare as Ragazza Food & Wine at 4301 Main St. in midtown Kansas City.

When Norris opened the Italian restaurant in 2014, it had 40 seats and a handful of family recipes. Now, Ragazza has 100 seats, those same family recipes, and the culinary prowess of executive chef James Landis.

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Chef James Landis of Ragazza Food & Wine. Judy Revenaugh

The restaurant and wine bar is right around the corner from the original location. It’s twice the size, but still feels cozy because the dining room is divided by a bar. Colorful pillows line the banquettes, which are regularly full with happy diners, and family-centric art adorns the walls. Instead of invoking the stereotypical Italian family images, the space retains an airy feeling that encourages diners to linger.

Landis, who previously worked at Blue Grotto and RecordBar, joined the Ragazza team during renovations. Construction delays allowed him the chance to perfect some of the menu’s best new dishes. Don’t worry — the giant spicy meatballs are still there, but there are many new dishes that please the palate just as well.

On a busy Saturday evening, I slipped in sans reservations and observed from the bar. Happy hour was going from 3 to 6 p.m. and the menu of small plates was filled with favorites. I paired my glass of cava with baked goat cheese, a pair of those spicy meatballs, and a generous bowl of crispy eggplant fries.

The eggplant fries are one of Landis’s additions — they are addictive and just different enough to make a big impact. To make them, Landis soaks strips of eggplant in milk and then coats them in a seasoned flour. He fries them until they’re crispy and adds freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The fries come with a side of sugo, an Italian meat sauce. But for me, it’s all about the garlicky pesto aioli for dipping.

Those who associate eggplant with heavy, sodden eggplant parmesan will never look at the fleshy fruit the same way.

The roasted goat cheese is another great dish for sharing. The crispy slices of focaccia with the soft, creamy goat cheese is so satisfying, especially with rich tomato sauce. And if you’re at Ragazza during happy hour, it’s criminal not to indulge in the meatballs. Norris’s family recipe is a good one with plenty of fennel and red pepper.

I had to try a few of the new entrees on the menu. Many of the dishes started as specials at the original location.

The orecchiette pasta with Italian sausage and kale was simple but flavorful. Landis starts with a pan sauce left over from browning Italian sausage. He deglazes the pan with white wine and then finishes the sauce with chicken stock and butter. The tender ears of pasta float in the rich and savory broth dotted with generous hunks of Italian sausage and braised kale. Never has a dish been so light in sauce but so satisfying at the same time. And the garlic level? Perfecto.

One of the other standouts that Landis brought to the menu is the Spezzatino di Cinghiale. This wild boar ragu is served over polenta with bright sauteed greens. While it may be one of the heavier dishes on the menu, it’s worth every minute on the treadmill. The big chunks of meat, mixed with hearty carrots and tomatoes, are so tender that they practically melt in your mouth.

And while I’m not normally a polenta fan, this version was so thick and cheesy that anything else would be insufficient for the task of accompanying the boar. It’s a completely cohesive dish that should never, ever change.

If you can spare room for dessert — it was a challenge for me — the menu is rife with Italian favorites. The pistachio cannoli, filled with ricotta and finished with dark chocolate and pistachio liqueur, definitely hits the sweet and crunchy marks. But my favorite was the limoncello cake.

Ragazza makes its own limoncello, so you know it’s bound to be good. It’s not overly sweet, but it packs a punch, and is served in a ceramic shot glass rimmed in sugar to make up for the piquant liquid. The cake is a lemon bundt drizzled with a glaze made with the limoncello. It’s perfectly moist and would pair well with a shot of its namesake or a double espresso.

Ragazza’s new location offers brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays complete with a deejay spinning records. The brunch menu features all of the hits from dinner as well as brunch-only options such as the Big Gay Brunch —pastrami hash with polenta, gravy and a breakfast cocktail.

Daisy Buckët, one of Kansas City’s most vibrant drag queens, holds court at Ragazza every third Thursday.

Norris plans to add lunch service in June. She says she plans to bring back the restaurant’s popular panini menu for lunch only.

Ragazza has grown in an organic way to become the midtown hangout that it was always destined to be. With a wide variety of Italian wines by the glass and an ever-expanding cocktail menu, it’s the type of place that’s perfect for a quick stop-off after work, and then dinner, and then a nightcap... you get the idea.

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