How many people have dreamed of opening his or her own cozy little (fill in the blank)? If you’re reading this column, chances are you would fill it with a word like bar, restaurant, café, bistro, deli or bed and breakfast. Laura Norris has done what most of us only dream of doing in opening Cucina della Ragazza, a small and inviting place in the amazingly revitalized Westport entertainment district of Kansas City.
You won’t find riffs on Italian classics with the addition of foams, sous videtechniques, or deconstructed anything. The food is robust, simple, and straightforward Italian-American fare, the cuisine that evolved with immigrants from Italy who found themselves in a new land with new ingredients on their hands. Cucina della Ragazza is satisfying on a very fundamental level. In fact, it would not be difficult to begin to think of this as an extension of your own kitchen or home, or rather the kitchen of your own imaginary Italian grandmother. The atmosphere hints at all of the things we need: a stone hearth, a deli with its restoratives to keep us from hunger and the reassuring presence of the wine bar. Reflections of Norris’ ties to family, friends and community are physically evident in the bar, dining tables, even the concrete bathroom sink, all handmade by Ragazza’s family of friends. For those of you who don’t know Laura Norris (which seems to be impossible because she seems to know everyone), she is a woman of many skills who has worn many hats. Most recently she was the director of Youth Friends, a youth mentoring program. She has also been heavily involved in the theater and design communities for many years. (This might explain the presence of Missy Koonce, the demure wallflower who frequently holds court behind the bar. Despite her shyness, Missy has never met a stranger and will make you feel instantly at home. And she’s good for a laugh or three.) What Norris does in her new establishment is exactly what one could expect from the kitchen of a young woman: she serves the recipes she knows—those passed down through her family. If the dishes I’ve sampled are any indication, I think a bountiful Sunday lunch with her family would be a delight.
Sausage, the southern Italian kind with a nice spicy kick and lots of fennel, is the backbone of many of the dishes here. It’s the heart and soul of the artichoke and sausage soup often available at lunch and not to be missed. The flavorful broth is studded with chunks of tomato, artichokes and sausage. In the wintertime, the soup warms and comforts you from the inside. On a warm day, it cools you from the outside—if you break a little sweat. The sausage also plays a major role in one of the stars of Ragazza’s menu, THE MEATBALL. After you experience THE MEATBALL, you will understand the all-caps. This MEATBALLdeserves respect. It is not the Italianpolpette, a little ball of meat the size of marble, but a polpettone, something large enough to be more closely related to a meatloaf. It’s zesty and spicy, the richness balanced by the bright acidity of the tomato sauce, perfect for slicing and sharing with friends. Served in its own little cast-iron skillet, the half-poundMEATBALL would be perfect for savoring alone with a glass of wine and a chunk of bread, vegetables be damned. A smaller version of THE MEATBALL is available as a sandwich, topped with oozy melty fresh mozzarella.
Sausage fortifies the sauce in the rigatoni with (a not so) Bolognese ragu. Call it what you will, it is technically not a Bolognese sauce, but a very tasty meat sauce that one’s southern Italian grandmother would be inspired to make after going to visit a distant relation (by marriage) in Bologna. Liberally topped with fresh gratings of cheese, it is a great lunch dish if you have time for a brief nap afterwards. For those in need, gluten-free pasta is available with a $1.50 upcharge.
The intention for Ragazza to be a deli is obvious in Norris’ extensive selection of lunchtime paninis. Submarine sandwiches filled with the previously mentioned meatballs, or Italian sausage with peppers and onions, grilled panini and deli classics like Sicilian tuna with arugula, tomato and onion or Tuscan chopped liver are available alone or as a complete meal (including a drink and choice of chips, pasta salad or garden salad) for a small upcharge. My favorite was the pastrami. It’s one of those combinations that can’t be beat—the cure on the pastrami (this one is house-smoked as well), the acidity and crunch of the sauerkraut, the warm, melting cheese providing a little moisture, the pungency of the mustard, all swaddled in marbled rye bread.
One of the best ways to experience the charm of Ragazza is through the spuntini (snack plates) section of the menu. These not-so-small snack plates are available any time of day, and they are perfect for sharing. I have tried almost all of them, and they get across-the-board thumbs up. In addition to the aforementioned MEATBALL and Italian sausage and peppers, there is a lovely and light bresaola roll. Bresaola, the Italian version of air-dried salted beef, is used as a wrapper for a refreshing salad of arugula with lemon-infused extra virgin olive oil and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. If you like cheese and tomatoes, you’ll love the roasted goat cheese with red sauce and crostini. Tangy goat cheese, bathed in a pool of spicy tomato sauce, is heated to its puffy melting point and served with a basket of crostini for dipping or spreading.
If I could have only one of the spuntini, it would be the crostini, a sampling of crispy toasts topped with (1) arugula and walnut pesto, (2) velvety white beans, and (3) garlic cream cheese with roasted peppers. It’s one of those guilt-free dishes that makes you feel good about eating vegetables. And if you’re having afternoon spuntini, you should naturally drink Ragazza’s afternoon aperitivi with them. The aperitivi, combined with a wine list featuring some of the best values in Italian wines in all of Kansas City, is the essence of one of the greatest gifts the Mediterranean culture has shared with the world. Small, intensely flavorful bites of food paired with great drinks at a time of day when we really should be sitting back to relax and reflect on the day and life, preferably with friends and family or even alone, as long as a smart phone can’t reach you. The Ragazza drink list is a mosaic of Italian names, places and indigenous and trendy flavors, all served with a sense of humor. A classic Negroni (a lovely and bitter concoction of equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth) and its milder modern cousin the Roman Spritzer (mildly bitter and herbal Casoni 1814 liquor, prosecco and a splash of soda) share space with the Sicilian Sunrise (or sunset, depends on time and amount consumed), and the Godmother (amaretto and vodka—obviously sweeter than the godfather).
Most importantly, I don’t want anyone to overlook the amazing value of the wine list. The list contains approximately 25 wines (sparkling, white, rose and red), almost exclusively Italian. Many of these incredibly food-friendly wines are available by either glass or bottle, and there is something for almost every wine palate (and wine budget).
The menu evolves from spuntini to a dinner menu in the early evening, and the larger plates come with a choice of Caesar salad or green salad. We enjoyed our salads alongside the meal, not as a separate course, mainly because that’s the way I like to eat a salad. What I loved about the entrées is that they simply are what they are. No surprises, no pretensions, and the prices are right. I have eaten here over the course of five months and continue to be pleasantly surprised by the lack of affectation in the food. A few dishes are a bit more refined (where needed), but generally speaking, it’s like eating in someone’s home. The Chicken Saltimbocca (“chicken that jumps in your mouth,” an Italian-American classic firmly rooted in Italian ingredients and culture) is simply prosciutto-wrapped chicken stuffed with spinach. It is served with lightly sautéed green beans and creamy polenta. As straightforward as it gets. The eggplant Parmesan is constructed of quality ingredients—pan-fried eggplant layered with cheese and tomato. Dressed in the family tomato sauce and served piping hot, it is sure to delight.
Cucina della Ragazza serves breakfast on Saturday, but not the typical Italian breakfast—coffee, most likely with some kind of milk, something sweet, and a cigarette. At Ragazza, they offer a polenta-based eggs Benedict, a potato gratin with Italian sausage and gravy, and panini, not to mention breakfast drink specials like the classic Bellini or a Bloody Maria (each quite inexpensive at $4). Just be careful how relaxed and comfortable you get. Brunch could easily slip into spuntini and then melt right into dinner—and with only about seven tables and seating at the bar, the line of people at the door could get a little rowdy.
If you need a little Italian soul food, visit Cucina della Ragazza, a culmination of 20 years of dreams. It’s a combination of Norris’ love of family history and recipes, Italian culture, community spirit and hospitality. She has truly created that fantasy spot we all wish we could open.