One Killer Sugo, 35 Years and Counting

Posted on

Italian fare, sugo, full bar, live entertainment, Spino, Little Italy, Local Food





Kansas City Italians have a history often colored by the alluring lore of the local Mafia.  The Sicilian mafiaso duo, the DiGiovanni brothers, fled to Kansas City as early as 1912 and began organized criminal activity. With one Italian mob boss after another—Lazia, Carollo, Binaggio, Civella—it’s understandable that locals often associate all things Italian with legendary mobsters. But if there’s one chapter of Italian history in Kansas City that deserves true respect, then it’s the food.  And to get the ultimate Italian experience at a Kansas City joint, there’s nothing quite like Anthony’s on Grand Avenue.


Like any good Italian eatery, Anthony’s is proudly family owned, and has been for three generations. In 1978, Anthony Spino, Jr. took over the building at 701 Grand Ave.,  which his mother had been running as a deli in the preceding decade. But the atmosphere it preserves dates even further back. With a low-lit dining room and paintings of the Old Country, one feels transported to a Rat Pack fantasy. To punctuate, speakers blast “Ol’ Blue Eyes” into the parking lot, setting the mood before you even walk through the door.


Anthony Spino, Butch Spino (founder), family friend Michael Todd, and Vito Spino. Butch–Anthony and Vito’s father–still arrives every single morning at 7 a.m. to open up the place. Photo courtesy of Chris Huntington.


Anthony’s delivers more than just the atmosphere. The Spino boys–Anthony III and brother Vito–use the same recipes passed down from grandma, time-tested iterations of veal parmesan and lasagna that have kept dedicated downtown lunch crowds (the special serves two for $15!) coming back for decades. It’s what’s in the dishes that is truly special: the family sugo, or red sauce made fresh every day.

It’s not just the secret sauce that has stayed in the family. The management has remained Spino-operated since the joint opened. Even when Anthony moved to New York in 2014, Vito stayed on, and continues to run the place now with family friend Michael Todd. This dedication and amore to the food and service is just the kind of family detail that has preserved Anthony’s as a beloved holdout in a changing downtown.


Vito, Michael and Anthony. Photo courtesy of Chris Huntington.


Things have changed for the city’s Italian population since the days of the group’s early arrivals in the later 19th century. Columbus Park, the neighborhood just east of the River Market, was a major immigrant center for many ethnicities, but gained a reputation as “Little Italy” around 1895, when the Holy Rosary Catholic Church opened to serve that community. In the beginning of the 20th century, over 10,000 Italians had moved into the neighborhood, and while a handful would end up absorbed by organized crime, a good many others chose to enterprise with their appetite.


One of these families, helmed by Johnny Bonden and friend Frank Lipari, opened up Italian Gardens on 11th and Baltimore. The restaurant opened in 1933, persisting through rough times in the days of the Depression, but persevered to remain a city staple for another 70 years.  The enduring restaurant attracted stars like Frank Sinatra himself, and stayed in the family through the decades.


What a family run restaurant looks like: Anthony and Denise Spino, Michael Todd, Teresa Spino–Anthony and Vito’s mother, who ran the restaurant for years and still makes the cheesecake to this day–Teresa’s sister Annie (who still works in the restaurant), and Vito Spino. Photo courtesy of Chris Huntington.


In the middle of that run, Anthony’s opened up just a few blocks away. It was to similarly undesirable timing, too, as urban decay had been luring businesses out of downtown, not into it.  But Anthony and Teresa Spino perfected the sugo and cultivated an atmosphere still defining the restaurant today—over 30 years later.  The loyal customer base swears by the institution, and the sizeable private dining room hosts up to 40 guests for all sorts of family milestones. Don’t forget the bar—open late and serving up affordable booze and sometimes lounge singers. After dinner, treat yourself to a cannoli and some vino, and soak in the Old World charm.  The only thing dangerous about this slice of Italy is that you’ll keep wanting more.