Lidia Bastianich talks Carnevale de Venezia, Mission Taco Joint on the way, and Mario’s and Houston’s set closing dates

Celebrated PBS chef, restaurateur, Eataly empress and lovable Nonna Lidia Bastianich will be on site at Lidia’s Kansas City (101 West 22nd Street) Thursday, February 2, to host Carnevale de Venezia, a celebration of the time before Lent. Bastianich plans to spend the day with her employees and guests at the restaurant before signing cookbooks. (The dinner is $50 a person, plus tax and gratuity. See for more information and the full menu.)

I talked by phone with Bastianich about the history of Carnevale in Venice, and her accent is still fresh in my ear. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

The Pitch: What is the experience of Carnevale like in Venice?

Bastianich: Carnevale is basically the celebration of the day before Lent. The 40 days of Lent is kind of the purging of oneself. The day before, the people say, “Let’s celebrate. Let’s eat ourselves silly. Let’s do silly things.” Venice is very romantic. It’s foggy, and it’s transportive to the noble period of the Veneziani. You go from the the bars or the restaurants and have the ciccheti, the tastings, and you have your glass of prosecco or a good white wine, usually. You then go on, you meet more people. You go to the houses, what used to be the noble houses — you have to have an invitation — but you go from house to house and eat and drink and enjoy the party. Rarely do you recognize anybody, and you just have a blast. 

What about Venetian cuisine inspires you?

Venetian cuisine is quite interesting. Now, Italy has 20 regions, and the food of each region is quite different, as are the music and the dialect. Venice was a city-state for a long time, a very successful one, from about the 600s to the 1200s. The city-state was strong because it started with the spice trade. Venetians were sailors, and when the northerners came to raid them, Venetians moved from the mainland onto the islands, which was how Venice was formed. Spices were very much appreciated, and they brought in a lot of wealth. The bullion for the Venetian states was black pepper. 

So, if we talk about spices — spices like pepper, clove, cinnamon and ginger — these are tropic-belt spices that don’t grow in the temperate zone with all of the fresh herbs known in Italian cuisine. But these were imported, and as the rich grew richer and as the houses grew, spices were a sign of well-being, and it was incorporated into their cuisine for festivities. A commoner wouldn’t have had black pepper, but it started with the houses and then trickled into the culture. Today, the flavors are very pronounced — a lot of black pepper, a lot of clove, a lot of cinnamon, ginger.

Which of the traditional dishes of the feast have influenced your menu?

In the region there is a lot of birds, quail, duck, rice — the risottos are elegant. Rice came to Italy in the 600s, and in the 1200s really took hold. So we will have risotto, we will have antipasti, pasta, quail, beef braised in Venetian spices — even coffee they used as a flavoring agent. 

Then there is the whole cuisine of the fisherman, of the poor. The fishermen used vinegar in the preparation of their foods. Say they went out for three or four days to fish — they preserved their meals in acid. They made a marinade of onions and vinegar, and fried the fish. That is our inspiration.

I always look at different techniques of cooking. It’s amazing that these cultures going back thousands of years related to food in the right way. I’m sure they didn’t know the science of it — trial and error — but it remains part of that cuisine. 

The union of Mission Taco Joint and International Tap House, at 1801 Oak, is at last picking up steam.

The building needed a lot of work. Back in 2014, it took a direct hit from a car fleeing police, resulting in a partial collapse of the structure; since the project was announced, in October 2015, it has experienced a number of construction- and permit-related delays. But the site is now under construction again, and a call to Mission Taco Joint owner Adam Tilford confirms plans for an April or May opening. 

Mario’s in Westport (204 Westport Road) and Houston’s on the Plaza (4640 Wornall Road) have both announced impending closure.

Open for more than 40 years, Mario’s is owned by John Waid (of the family known for Waid’s Restaurants). According to shop staff, Waid has decided to retire and will be moving to Tucson, Arizona. Mario’s will remain open until the end of December, so you have most of the year to fill up on grinders and cannoli.  

Houston’s is going away sooner. A March 31 date was announced, but now it looks like the place will close January 31. A statement released by the restaurant notes that “an agreement to extend our tenancy at the Plaza could not be reached with the Lessor.” The statement may have alluded to longstanding rumors about the complications of Buca di Beppo doing business in the basement under Houston’s: “Details surrounding infrastructure improvements that sought to temporarily close the restaurant proved to be insurmountable.”

Houston’s is owned by Hillstone Restaurant Group, which says it’s leaving open the possibility of developing a restaurant in another Kansas City location. 

Saturday, January 28

If you’ve had a hankering for chef Shanita McAfee-Bryant’s amazing Nashville hot wings or her red-velvet waffles since Magnolia’s closed, head to Red Crow Brewing Company’s taproom (20561 South Lone Elm Road, Spring Hill). Magnolia’s on the Move will be parked out front between noon and 8 p.m., with McAfee-Bryant there in person, serving up her well-loved recipes.  

Kansas City tiki bars such as Trader Vic’s and Kon-Tiki may be long gone, but a few establishments have breathed some local life into the tiki trend. Tonight, Hank Charcuterie (1900 Massachusetts Street, Lawrence) is devoting its menu to Polynesian-inspired food and drink. Sample an old-fashioned Zombie, or try the Acapulco Afternoon, made with Reposado tequila, Cynar, tonic syrup, orange juice and Peychaud’s bitters. Full food and drink menus are TBA. Make reservations by calling 785-832-8688.

Wednesday, February 1

Dia de la Candelaria is celebrated 40 days after Christmas, marking the presentation of Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. In some parts of Mexico, it is marked with a feast. Today at Cacao (5200 West 95th Street, Overland Park) it is celebrated with music and a prix fixe menu. Dig in to sopes or taquitos, your choice of tamales with soup and beans, and panna cotta or flan. The meal is $30 a person, exclusive of tax or gratuity (though it does come with a welcome margarita). Call 913-296-7485 for reservations. 

If you are closer to Westport, try Port Fonda (4141 Pennsylvania) tonight for a Tequila Ocho tasting menu. Chef David Ford is making tequila-poached lobster-tail salad, roasted squash, a rabbit duo (rabbit confit and poached rabbit loin), a granita and a spice cake. All courses are paired with one or two pours of tequila or tequila cocktails. The meal is $65 per diner, not including tax or tip. Call 816-216-6462 for reservations. 

Categories: Food & Drink