In Memoriam: Charles Ferruzza

Charles Ferruzza // Photo by Julie Denesha and KCUR 89.3FM

Charles Ferruzza, the writer and broadcaster whose restaurant reviews and food writing made his byline The Pitch’s marquee attraction during the paper’s fattest years, died January 28, following a short illness. He was 62. 

As the editor who marshalled his work at a time when first digital publishing and then new ownership demanded copy in excess of good craft—that is, as the editor made to lay off Charles a second time in his Pitch career on the basis of spreadsheets and vague threats, having presided over assignments that would compromise anyone’s gastric health—I thought he was older. 

Journalism ages even its smaller-town practitioners. The ones who treat their beats as though a global audience awaits go faster because they’ve gone harder. And Charles never presumed his readers were provincial, were limited by living here. He uniquely understood the metro’s depth and scale. 

Not that Charles was a journalist. How could he have been when I never saw him eat at his desk? Everywhere else, sure. But his station was cluttered not with crumbs or coffee cups but with years of menus and printed publicists’ emails, a hopelessly unindexed almanac detailing a city forever shifting under his crooked desk chair. 

He was a journalist, of course. He had a decorator’s eye for detail and an eavesdropper’s ear for the embellishable bon mot. And of course he knew how to pick up a phone and ask questions. Sometimes they were questions I wish he’d asked before deadline. But often, the later he bothered, the better the answers he got. He was a genius at buffering tossed-off questions with small flatteries and acute perceptions so that his subjects would let through something off-brand, outside the chef’s persona. 

Charles was also a liar, and this aged us both.

He lied to me routinely about when a review would be finished, sometimes in a voicemail announcing a sick day on a due date. (Always he began as he did all of his live calls, by giving his first and last names in his lowest, most secretive timbre, a spy discovered and seeking extraction.) 

And he lied to you sometimes, too. He failed to tell you occasionally that some weird place whose beating heart sang to him simply did not make food worth paying money to eat. Instead, he extolled the strangeness of such places, leaving you to infer from a dearth of menu exploration that perhaps a drink at the bar and some cautious people-watching would suffice. 

Nor did Charles typically disclose that his palate was sometimes compromised by nicotine recidivism, or that entire Yellow Pages sections of foodstuffs made him all but retch into a garbage pail upon mention. The man did not like pizza! Yet he was cunning in his workarounds when circumstances dictated. 

In the privacy of the office, Charles’ response to many things—including the idea to do a pizza issue—was a booming, theatrical Blech! 

Sometimes it came out guttural, venomous. Other times it was charming and almost polite, like the useful caution a native offers a tourist on the street. I told him once that I wanted to record it and use it for his ringtone, though he wasn’t a texter and, as I said, tended to call only with disappointing news. 

In print, a classic Charles bleccccccchhhhh might come out this way:

Backfire BBQ in Wyandotte County may be the only place in town whose menu potentially could be used as a deadly weapon. The two thin, brushed-steel plates that serve as a cover for this restaurant’s listing of available dishes could, with very little effort, be transformed into guillotine blades or a samurai sword.

And I think I would prefer to face the guillotine or be tossed into a fiery barbecue pit than have to eat again at Backfire BBQ.

This obviously was worth whatever wait was involved that week. 

Anyway, all of the above must be recognized as entirely fair deceptions and the economical behaviors of someone asked to be several places at once. The deadline fabulism is part of the lumbering slapstick waltz in which all editors and writers pose themselves. The rest falls under the broad license of storytelling. And Charles was a singular storyteller. If you’re reading this, it’s because you admired his ability to turn a few semi-reluctant visits to a dining establishment into a short Kansas City fable—as recalled by Truman Capote and Oscar Wilde sharing Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show couch. 

Recall his 2000 review of Tuscany Manor, an unlikely Lee’s Summit Italian restaurant that failed to generate long-term likelihood even after Charles teased us with this:

After a swift tour through the renovated 133-year-old farmhouse and a peek into the tidy little upstairs bathroom, you might be compelled to ask: “C’e un dottore in casa?” or “Is there a doctor in the house?”

No, the bathroom’s unexpected inhabitant is not the restaurant’s resident ghost (and there is one, according to co-owner Greg Hunsucker, who told me that the friendly poltergeist likes to shuffle around a set of cordial glasses in a locked case in the Wine Room) but the head and leg of a female mannequin lolling in the bathroom’s tub, surrounded by glass bubbles.

“It’s straight out of The Shining!” said my friend Bob, who discovered the oddball tableau and practically fell down the back staircase in his rush to report on it. Our companion, Fred, and I didn’t care — we were too busy gobbling up fat, crusty crab cakes drizzled with béarnaise ($7.50) and spooning a glorious artichoke bruschetta ($6.50), a purée of artichoke hearts and chopped tomatoes over toasted slices of bread.

“Il sole tuscana le ha cotto il cervello,” I told Bob — the Tuscan sun had cooked his brain. I didn’t believe the girl-in-the-bathtub story until I saw her for myself, but by that time, the oddball charm of Tuscany Manor had started working its magic on me.

It was one of the first pieces he wrote for The Pitch, and it established the Ferruzza template: Openly question the point of the restaurant, quote his tablemates (notably that most stalwart foil, “my friend Bob”) saying the cattieset things about which Charles himself stays discreetly mute, consider the food in a simply transactional fashion. In this case:

There is a broad Italian influence on a third of the menu’s dishes, yes. But Tuscan? No. The cuisine from the Tuscan region — the very heart of Italy — is more rustic and simple than the Neapolitan dishes offered here, such as the luscious slab of baked lasagna ($13) in a sea of basil-scented tomato sauce or the rich, slightly salty plate of cheese tortellini with smoked salmon ($17.50), all dappled in pesto cream sauce, fresh spinach, and bits of salty smoked salmon.

Dishes in Charles’ reviews were often dappled with sauces, by the way, just as good broths were tawny, enticing breads crusty, and shrimp worth considering brawny. I used to think of these and other of his heavily repeated descriptors as failures of imagination. Now they seem to me the loose change of that transactional approach to food, what he got back from spending his intelligence on a more cosmic assessment. 

C.J. Janovy, the Pitch editor who worked longest and best with Charles, wrote in her beautiful obituary on KCUR 89.3’s website that this approach drew its share of complaints. But his restaurant reviews were conceived as alternatives to something else that’s long gone: the more reverential, self-consciously “correct” dining columns of The Kansas City Star (or, really, any other daily paper, few of which have retained full-time food critics). They were never supposed to be lapidary pronouncements of whose steak was most tender. Likewise, they predated — and then rejected — the Internet-driven boom in excitable food blogging and the ugly crowdsourcing of Yelp and the hype and anti-hype that still characterize both. 

Fair to say now too that the majority of the places to which Charles devoted his efforts are gone, have been gone awhile, and few are mourned. He understood that this was the way of things, knew that part of this firmament’s order depended on his bearing witness and moving on. And his having written a more typical strain of restaurant criticism would have altered the ultimate trajectory of none of these businesses. 

The lasting gift Charles gave us instead (as long as there’s a functioning archive at this URL) is an exhaustive history of what restaurateurs good, smart, bad, stupid, and points between tried to do here as the century turned over and began to mature. That is, he gave us a brilliant cross-section of our metro at a pivotal moment. Charles was a professional writer, an amateur historian, and an entirely assimilated Kansas Citian, and the value of his zillion words for this paper—as the amalgam of these things, as a kind of belletrist—is inestimable. It deserves a safe and permanent haven.

So did Charles. 

Charles, the patron saint of blown deadlines. Charles, the superstitious hypochondriac.

Charles, the shoulda-been TCM host who mainlined Hollywood Babylon. Charles, the former restaurant waiter with countless stories of rudeness, inebriation, and calamity. 

Charles, the denizen of and advocate for lost worlds: steakhouses, flea markets, discos, secret drag clubs, charm schools.

Charles, the after-hours astrologer and empty-promises matchmaker. (After my divorce, more than 15 years ago, in the longest conversation we’d had to that point, he told me he had a neighbor in Brookside I had to meet. “She has very large breasts!” he said, cupping his hands under his chest as though we were in a Three’s Company episode. This left me speechless, which pleased his sense that he grasped heteronormative primitivism. The subject never arose again.) 

Charles, the gunshot survivor whose own father was shot to death, both crimes random.

Charles, the Sicilian, Catholic understander of heritage and family. I once brought my late grandmother’s recipe box to work so Charles could evaluate its contents: the midcentury magazine recipes and newspaper food-section clippings, their recombinant strains of pre-Depression scratch cooking and postwar convenience foods. He treated this prearranged event as though visiting a white-glove archive, commenting on each little laminated card and recounting certain of his own family mealtime recollections.

Charles, whom your grandma would have liked and who could have understudied her. 

Charles, the brother and uncle and son. Charles, the grudge-y Facebook user whose temporary abandonment felt like being written out of a favorite cousin’s will. 

Charles, who could detect a slight from outer space and deployed a NORAD-grade defensiveness accordingly. Charles, the passive-aggressive missile. 

Charles, who was capable of absurd courtliness and skid-row profanity, and whose best laugh was an unseemly bray. Charles, the bawd.

Charles, lover of casinos and casino buffets. Charles, the estate-sale hound who brought us tchotchkes, geegaws, junk. Charles, who understood kitsch and camp and adored good theater. 

Charles, who wanted to write the definitive local guide to hating straight bachelorette parties at drag shows and gay bars but who knew that the owners and staff of such businesses were, not surprisingly, less than eager to go on the record dissing a bread-and-butter revenue source. 

Charles, who was the most entertaining lunch companion or dinner date any of us who had the honor will ever remember. For what turned out to be a short list of the city’s worthwhile pancakes, he and I met at 2 a.m. in Westport, when a breakfast-all-night place briefly existed there. We ate profoundly mediocre starch and drank coffee in the middle of the night, and it is my defining Westport experience.

It’s a cliché to say that he contained multitudes, and it would also be a Charles-like inflation of the truth. But he was, as we say now, a lot. And he deserved a lot better from this business (from me, too) than he got. 

I can bring no authority or special insight into Charles’ gayness or how he felt about having lived through the AIDS crisis. I lack the depth of understanding it would take to talk about the longtime sobriety that was conspicuous only because he happily positioned his byline well apart from fancy wine lists and what became a somewhat out-of-hand cocktail culture. Charles was a complainer, but he never bitched about these serious things, never spoke as though the wisest choices he’d made for himself, including the career he’d carved out, came with heartache or second thoughts. 

Smaller things, though, were always fair game. Charles may be the last American to have referred to suffering “the trots.” Certainly, he was the only food critic ever to have used the phrase in a review. 

The week Charles died, I read poet Robert Hass’ latest book, Summer Snow. Hass turns 79 in March, and this new volume remarks often and well on death. When I got to one called “Smoking in Heaven,” which speculates about how some might fill an afterlife’s endless leisure, I thought of Charles. If there’s a destination waiting beyond this plane, he’s there now. He is wearing tight clothes. He looks good. He is smoking. He has no deadline but is writing in a notebook. If he likes you, he’ll tell you the juicy parts he’s going to leave out of the finished piece. He has all the time in the world.


There are a few Charles based remembrance events coming up. We’ll be updating this post with that. Also, if you’re someone with kind memories of Charles and you’d like to have those included, please send those details to brock@thepitchkc.com and we’ll get them added here.

There will be an upcoming tribute to Charles Ferruzza to benefit The Writers Place at the Uptown Theater. We will update this with the details as they are finalized.


Contributions:

I can attest that, in the short time I worked with him, to be his friend, which is in itself an overstatement, was both exhilarating and exhausting, and could waver between like and dislike based on his mood of the moment. He could slice me apart with a word and equally charm with another. I will always remember him fondly, but with an edge of aggravation.
— Sherri Armel Cox

 

My husband and I were delighted to have Charles as a friend and a neighbor.  He joined our 58th and Charlotte block in the late 90’s, just as UMKC was threatening to destroy our homes in favor of soccer fields and green space.  Many will remember the blue and white yard signs broadcasting UMKC KILLS OUR HOMES.  Charles joined right in the fight and became a stalwart soldier in the battles.  Eventually, the neighborhood’s fine community organization defeated the university and we’re still intact today. Since Charles lived just three doors north, we’d frequently see him as we were all coming and going; we’d usually have time to visit a bit.  But the best times were the years when he “walked” the two dogs, or rather, when the dogs would run Charles.  It was our understanding that the dogs actually belonged to Charles’ good friend Bob, but apparently Bob did not spring for any kind of training.  They would literally drag Charles down the street, frequently in different directions, and he would struggle in his efforts to manage them.  The dogs always won, but as he passed our house and turned the corner, there was usually a bit of time for a short conversation, in between his yelling at the dogs. His biting charm and wit were always refreshing.  We miss him.
— Nancy Clark Handweaver
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