The first floor of Hotel Phillips at 106 W. 12th Street has been reimagined as an authentic Italian ristorante, transforming it from its previous incarnation as 12 Baltimore into the sleek and stylish Tavernonna, which features dark walls punctuated with rustic wooden pillars and iron and glass chandeliers. It may be a hotel restaurant but you won’t need a room number to enjoy yourself thoroughly. The interior is appealingly unstuffy. One can pop in for a cocktail and snack at the bar after work without feeling self conscious about dress, but one could also make this the centerpiece of a swank evening out.
The menu follows the traditional Italian form—starting with antipasti, and moving on with zuppa e insalata, a pasta course, then secondi. Executive chef Bryant Wigger has spent 18 years in hotel kitchens and several tours through Italy informed his ideology for the menu, which focuses on ingredient-driven, simple fare sublimely executed.
The first thing you’ll notice about the menu is the lack of excessive ingredients. As the fashion in menu writing these days leans heavily toward listing all the ingredients in a dish but omitting the form or function of those ingredients, sometimes the descriptions can be a bit laborious. Here you’ll seldom find any dish that has more than three or four ingredients, and the names actually insinuate what you’ll see on the plate.
Any further description is left up to the serving staff, and the dinner crew is more than equal to the task. Our server was a great example of going above and beyond to make sure our dining experience was superb. Cognizant of its location amid the various performance venues in downtown Kansas City, she called ahead of my reservation to find out if we were on a schedule, and made sure that we would be able to meet a 7:30 showtime for a concert by pointing us to expedient dishes. The pacing of the service does follow a more Italian model—dishes come out fresh—but ample time is left for conversation between courses. So let your server know if you’re on a timetable.
There is a fairly robust by-the-glass wine menu, as well as by the bottle. The cocktail list featured nine options with a subtle nod to European spirits and flavors. My Lavender Collins was a perfect blend of local and foreign. It featured Tom’s Town gin, St. Germain Elderflower for a floral note and just a tinge of lavender syrup. On another visit, the Paper Plane blended the caramel tones of Buffalo Trace bourbon with the refreshing briskness of Aperol. Old World and New World blend well in their shakers.
The antipasti includes some expected options, such as olives, bread, meatballs and salumi, but all are done well. Nonna’s meatballs, made of pure beef brisket, are soft but just stable enough to hold shape, making for a meltingly tender mouthful. Served with a house ricotta and pomodoro sauce, they could serve as a light meal when paired with one of the salad courses for someone who’s only feeling peckish.
For those with a more robust appetite, the rest of the menu beckons. All pastas, excepting the ziti, are made in-house daily, which was obvious with the spaghetti cacao e pepe. It had the wholesome tooth of a freshly made pasta, which was allowed to shine through in its simple sauce of olive oil, black pepper and pecorino cheese. That sauce was, of course, completed with the addition of a sous vide-poached egg that, once broken, bathed the tendrils in silky yolk for a truly memorable dish.
Wigger uses local meat purveyors such as Hatfield Ranch to source premium cuts of beef, chicken and as the secondi menu evolves, pork. He says he’s trying to build trust with diners with well-executed classics right now so that he can branch out to more exotic options, such as the suckling pig that was served at the Easter brunch.
Speaking of brunch, Tavernonna also serves breakfast every day. On weekends, a few additional dishes round out the brunch menu—some from the lunch menu and some specific to the brunch menu. Start with the Farm to Market Bread Company breadbasket, which came with house-made jam, fresh sea-salted butter and downright addictive ricotta and honey.
Order the flatiron steak and eggs and instead of a thin, stringy piece of meat that so often comes out on a breakfast plate, this steak was from a cow that had clearly known love in its life, or at least grass. The cut was flawlessly medium rare, tender and delectable when paired with poached eggs and what the menu calls salsa verde. The salsa more closely resemble a pistou than a salsa, but in any case, it was so intensely flavored that one could pair it with a half-dozen dishes and be completely content.
The organic polenta with roasted shitake mushrooms, seared pork belly, poached eggs and black truffle is a revelation. If you like shrimp and grits, here’s that idea brought home to the Midwest. The disparate textures melded delightfully.
To end on a sweet note, Wigger says that he’ll be adding an olive-oil cake with various accompaniments. But on this particular Sunday, the ricotta bombolini, a tower of five ricotta donuts dusted with vanilla sugar and rested on a smear of Meyer lemon curd was an exquisite finale. Fresh from the fryer, they were the perfect ending of a meal with the addition of a double espresso, just like they do in the Old Country.
As the seasons change and Wigger forges new relationships with local farmers, he plans on incorporating more seasonal produce and continuing to keep the focus on simple flavors and complex textures driven by ingredients that are at their peak. In other words, he’s planning to do Italian food, the way that it was meant to be—in the moment as the ingredients speak to him.
Breakfast: 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday – Thursday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Dinner: Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. – 11 p.m.