There are a few things we know for certain about the spiedini: The kebab-style Italian meat skewers beloved in Kansas City originated in Abruzzo, Italy, and the name comes from the Italian word for spit. In the early 1900s, Italian immigrants in New York were eating something they called a spiedie—a hoagie filled with beef and veal that were skewered and spit-roasted over hot coals. In 1989, when Mike Garozzo opened his eponymous restaurant in Columbus Park, it wasn’t long before his spin on spiedini became a local sensation.
After that, things get a little more hazy. Garozzo maintains that other restaurants may have been offering spiedini before him, but no one was doing it with chicken. His St. Louis compatriots in the Hill, the city’s Italian neighborhood where Garozzo was born and raised, reject this claim. Either way, Garozzo’s innovation became ubiquitous in Kansas City, and chicken spiedini even showed up on the menu at Olive Garden. Here’s the story of how spiedini started at three classic red sauce Italian spots in town.
In the late eighties, cholesterol-conscious diners were avoiding red meat. When he planned to open in the city’s traditional Italian neighborhood, Garozzo called on his Uncle Alfio in St. Louis to do what we’d today call consulting. “We were eating the Nonna Garozzo beef spiedini, and he said, ‘Mike, you don’t have enough chicken on the menu,’” Garozzo says. “I said, ‘We have chicken parmesan, chicken marsala—I mean, what are you going to do with it? It’s chicken.’”
A few rounds of experimentation led to the birth of Garozzo’s now-famous chicken spiedini. Garozzo marinates chicken tenders with olive oil, garlic, basil and breadcrumbs for three to six hours before rolling the strips into chunks and skewering them. At that point, the spiedini gets another coating of breadcrumbs before it’s charbroiled, sauced and served. The Garozzo’s menu now includes four versions in various Italian sauces, all named for family members. At one point, there was a gluten-free Adkins spiedini with prosciutto and spinach—it’s not on the menu anymore but is available upon request.
When I ask Garozzo about the local spiedini competition, he laughs cheerfully. “Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery,” he says.
Juan Bautista, who opened Carmen’s Cafe in Brookside in 1999 with his brother Francisco, is the first to admit his menu is heavily influenced by the decade he spent working at Garozzo’s. “We have continued with the same recipe we got from Garozzo’s, and that’s what we’ve been serving for twenty-one years,” he says.
The spiedini origin story Bautista heard starts with St. Louis trattorias in the seventies, where spiedini was always made with beef. “Now everyone serves it with chicken, and they have their own little touch when it comes to the recipe,” he says.
Bautista’s “little touch” comes in the marinade, which features garlic, butter, lemon juice, crushed red pepper and breadcrumbs. At Carmen’s, he offers six different spiedini preparations, including the best-selling Oscar, with chicken, shrimp and scallops.
The Country (Fried) Cousin
Anthony and Teresa Spino opened Anthony’s Restaurant & Lounge in 1978 in downtown Kansas City, and today, sons Vito and Anthony Jr. are keeping the business going. Anthony Jr. can’t remember exactly when the chicken spiedini made it on the menu at Anthony’s, but he supposes it was shortly after the charbroiled Garozzo’s version debuted. Anthony’s version is deep-fried.
“We slice chicken breast, bread it in Italian-seasoned crumbs, roll the pieces and stack them four to a skewer—and then you have to fry it,” he says. “I think we charbroiled it to start, but we found that our customers liked it better deep-fried.”
After the fry treatment, the skewer is submerged in amogio sauce (with lemon juice, olive oil and oregano) for ten minutes, until the crust has absorbed as much flavor as it can and the chicken is cooked through. It’s served over a tangle of pasta with a generous ladle of amogio.
“My dad’s first cook at the restaurant was our great-grandma, and the ingredients that go into that amogio sauce and a lot of our dishes were all hers,” Anthony Jr. says. “We’re using those same recipes from forty years ago, and they still work today.”