Price range: $$$$
Must-try: If you can only have one pasta, it should be the carbonara. (But be kind to yourself: Order two or three.)
Shout-out: Pastry chef Amanda Schroeder (formerly of Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room) has something for everyone, including a fairytale goat and ricotta cheesecake, a butterscotch-banana tiramisu and a refreshing olive oil cake.
Reservations: Highly recommended
If you dine regularly at restaurants in Kansas City, you have doubtlessly noted the ebbing and flowing of certain food trends. Remember the ramen spark that gripped the metro a couple years ago? Or what about the ever-shifting frontlines of the barbecue showdown — less a fad than an obsession, admittedly. The latest vogue seems to be pasta. Aside from many of Kansas City’s most celebrated restaurants devoting entire sections of their menus to pasta dishes (see: the Rieger, Novel, Antler Room), we are currently dipping into a bit of an Italian renaissance. James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Smith recently shuttered his namesake restaurant in favor of opening a new “modern Italian eatery” called Farina, and Ragazza — with its enthusiastic following — is building out a new, larger space for itself. And, of course, there is the much-anticipated Lazia, which opened in late November inside the new Crossroads Hotel.
Lazia bills itself as an “old world Italian” upscale restaurant. There are rustic cheese and charcuterie platters, a Caesar salad, hearty handmade pastas, pork Milanese and whole roasted branzino. At a glance, it looks like it could stand up against the menu at Lidia’s, the Crossroads Art District’s long-standing Italian mainstay.
But there is more than meets the eye. Though executive chef Remy Ayesh recognizes a need to honor the classics, she is determined to offer diners something new. Her dishes are intricate, layered and often delicate — even when she’s serving an entire bone-in pork chop that’s been pounded flat, breaded and deep-fried to the extent that its surface area competes with its own plate (I’m talking about the pork Milanese — more on it later). Ayesh walks a fine line as she endeavors to inject soft, whimsical notes into a menu that, in another chef’s hands, might lean toward bold flavors and heavy spreads suited for a Corleone family feast. Luckily, Ayesh is almost always successful.
The first indication that Lazia would take me and my dining companions on a different route came with a salad called the Giardino (“the garden”). A small and unsuspecting display of pickled vegetables arranged nicely atop a fan of butter lettuce, it was dressed lightly in a grapefruit vinegar and butter oil. I would have been perfectly happy with anything that didn’t immediately resemble an endless Olive Garden iceberg atrocity, but this was really something. Bright and crisp, Ayesh’s Giardino was an earthy celebration, with the flavor of each disparate element — soy-soaked oyster mushrooms, roasted golden beets, blistered rutabaga, pickled blueberries and carrots — amplified by its company. This set the tone for the rest of the meal. If everything was going to be as delightful as this salad, my guests and I said, we were in for a treat.
We were not disappointed. Ayesh earned major points with her sea bream tartare, a sweet, light freshwater fish that she poached in pork fat, giving the dish a lip-smacking quality. Blood orange oil and peach vinegar added zing, and there was just the tiniest of kicks from a spicy Calabrian chili paste. In another surprise twist, Ayesh served the knuckle-sized chunks of sea bream with chicharrones— crispy fried pork skins commonly found on Latin menus. The sea bream tartare worked, and it seemed to suggest something else about Lazia: Invention and playfulness would win out over any rigid ideas about what an Italian restaurant has to serve.
The pastas were, of course, our most anticipated course. There are several on the menu to choose from, so we passed over Ayesh’s traditional pomodro with maltagliati and her cuttlefish ink spaccatelli in favor of a pesto invierno (winter pesto), where tender potato gnocchi the size of matzo balls melted into a nutty, rich carrot-walnut pesto sauce. There was a syrupy drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar (seasoned with urfa biber, a raisin-y Turkish chili), sharp shavings of white pecorino cheese and gently roasted brussels sprout leaves. Ayesh positioned the gnocchi as an option for a vegetarian entree, and it was certainly large enough to be one — though I would argue that you don’t have to be a vegetarian to want to keep this dish all to yourself.
I tried to find the hint of fennel that the menu promised in the house-made pappardelle, but I suppose it could have been overwhelmed by the amatriciana, a rich tomato sauce that Ayesh, in a rather genius move, layered with leftover fat from the house meatballs (a pork, beef and bison blend) and fine specks of crispy pancetta. Still, I found myself fishing around between noodles for rough chunks of spiced sausage. This amatriciana could be Ayesh’s answer to the meat lover’s pizza, but it didn’t feel too heavy, which was surprising considering the fat content.
Lazia’s best-selling pasta is the carbonara. Well, of course it is: Everyone loves carbonara for its satisfying marriage of carbs, cheese and bacon. Pretty much anyone can manage a passable carbonara at home, thanks to its simple recipe and inexpensive ingredients. But the carbonara at Lazia is, well, not simple. (And, at $23, it’s not exactly cheap, either.) It is, however, perhaps one of the sexiest iterations of carbonara you’ll find. Ayesh says it might be the most complicated item on the menu. There are some 20 different procedures involved in creating this savory explosion, and hearing Ayesh detail each only made me love those squiggly, toothsome spaghetti noodles and that decadent bechamel sauce more. Three different cheeses go into the dish: parmesan, pecorino and Testun Occelli al Barolo (a sheep- and goat-milk blend that is packed in grape must). There is the signature Lazia peppercorn blend, adding some cacio e pepevibes to this dish. There is a salt-cured egg yolk just waiting to convert into an oozing golden river. There are rendered pancetta pieces and fresh pea tendrils. And as my fork scraped the plate, I found something else: my heart, broken, because there was no more carbonara.
“The idea with the pastas — and the whole menu, really — is to present something that’s seemingly simple and classic, and then when you taste it, it’s something special,” Ayesh says.
Case in point: Lazia’s pork Milanese, an eight-ounce beast that is not, as the menu suggests, an entree for one normal-sized adult but rather a meal for at least two. The chop itself is juicy, and the pretty pickled slaw (kraut giardinieria) is light and tart. I thought the caper cream sauce beneath the pork was perhaps too thin; it wouldn’t quite stick to the thick, crunchy breading.
If you order one of the dishes from the family-style section of the menu, I have another warning: The menu says, “Serves two and then some.” Over the years, I have come to understand this to be restaurant language for: “Feeds two, probably.” Not at Lazia, friends. The Porchetta-style farm chicken can feed at least four very hungry people. Like everything else on Lazia’s menu, it is a complex creation. Each order is composed of an entire chicken, which has been skinned, pounded together, coated with a house-cured lard blend, stuffed with fontina, mozzarella and sottocenere al tartufo (a black truffle cheese), rolled and encased again in the chicken skin, roasted and served with a black truffle gravy. Just remembering this dish makes me feel full. Pleasantly full, because this “chickenetta” is, all in all, an astonishing showstopper. And yet, despite the sheer audacity of this dish, its flavors are subtle and restrained. This dichotomy that Ayesh traverses throughout the menu at Lazia plays out at the dinner table like an elegant dance.
Because this is Kansas City, there is a steak section featuring four diverse cuts from an eight-ounce fillet to a 24-ounce strip. It’s an accessible collection, and each cut is served with the superb signature Lazia salt, a rich compound butter and a four-day demi-glace. It sounds very good, doesn’t it? But listen: If you go to Lazia, you’re going for the pasta. You’re going for the chickenetta. You’re going for the whole roasted branzino, the family-style platter of spaghetti and meatballs or the cheese plate loaded up with gorgeous, interesting selections like the Casatica di Bufala (water buffalo cheese from Lombarda). Get what you’re going for.
The world-at-odds mentality is not limited to the menu at Lazia. The restaurant itself seems awash in soft contradictions. Old-school hip-hop pours out of the speakers at a volume just high enough for diners to pick up a snippet of lyrics between courses. This cheeky irreverence is, at first, jarring. Lazia is sumptuously decorated, fitted with candelabras, chandeliers and plush seating. It’s the sort of dining room where you would turn up to be seen rather than to eat. But somehow, all the pieces fit together. Yes, the food is serious. But that doesn’t mean the experience has to be.