Opening my own restaurant was an unlikely career twist, but it actually came about in a very natural way. About 10 years ago I started to mentor a young 4th grader. We would often meet during her lunch hour and share stories over really terrible cafeteria food. Sadly, I found that it was the only meal of the day that she shared with someone. That was so unlike my experience growing up. I was raised in a family that sat down together every evening for dinner where we’d talk about our day, schoolwork, whatever. My mom was an amazing cook who came from a long line of Italian cooks, so it was always something special. Back then I never realized just how fortunate I’d been.
Because of my mother, I ultimately fell in love with food—and fell in love with sharing meals with family and friends. In college I would routinely feed my friends while experimenting with homemade pasta and new recipes. When I returned to Kansas City, every year I hosted a holiday party where the focus was on the food. It was great fun as it coincided with the holiday lighting ceremony in Gillham Park. We’d share food, drink wine and watch the park light up with color. For 15 years, my mom helped me feed nearly one hundred friends every year. The meatballs and the Eggplant Parmesan were always the most coveted.
When I decided to change careers, the urge to open a tiny deli was enormous. But I kept thinking, who was I to open a restaurant? After all, I’d studied architecture and historic preservation, not culinary arts. It was my family and friends who gave me the confidence and support to open Cucina della Ragazza. Their simple questions like: “Do we get to have that Eggplant Parmesan you make?” “Are you going to do your meatballs? Red sauce? Chicken Saltimbocca?” Those questions made me realize that I might have something to share beyond my annual gathering.
Considering my background, of course it was important to find the right space. That seemed almost as important as the food! I kept thinking about a book I’d read ages ago in college called The Life and Death of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Some of her simple concepts stuck with me and helped me realize that I really wanted to be in a historic building. I wanted to be part of a small, reviving community. I wanted to create a neighborhood gathering spot. I found all these things in Westport.
Often Ragazza seems like an extension of my old Gillham Park holiday parties—historic, cozy and jovial. And like those parties, it’s commonplace for friends to meet and strangers to end up talking by the end of a meal. I get to watch people share meals and stories every day. It’s the best I could hope for.
The first thing you see upon entering Cucina della Ragazza (besides Laura herself bustling from table to table making sure everyone is taken care of) is a blown-up vintage photograph of Laura’s mother as a child with her two brothers (Laura’s uncles) and their beaming, very Italian mother (Laura’s Nonna) hovering over them. It’s this heritage that comes to the fore at this cozy little bistro. The second thing you see is the fireplace, which in the winter is blazing away, making the restaurant even cozier and more charming. The fireplace is a happy accident, discovered when Laura was renovating the space. “I wanted to create a place I wanted to go to,” she says. And all these things came together to create exactly that.
On the lighter side, this is a great appetizer that
is simple to make. The rich flavor of the Bresaola combines perfectly with the peppery arugula, tangy lemon and salty Parmesan.
- 12 wafer thin slices of Bresaola
- 2 cups fresh arugula
- 1tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Mix the olive oil and lemon juice, toss with arugula and half of the Parmesan. For each roll, place two slices of Bresaola down and add dressed arugula down the center and roll into shape. Put the remaining arugula on the plate, gently place the rolls on top of a bed of tossed arugula and sprinkle remaining Parmesan.
One of my longtime favorites. Fun to make and its simple ingredients combine to make this a flavorful entrée for any time of the year. It’s now a Ragazza favorite too.
- 4 chicken cutlets (approximately 6 ounces each)
- 4 slices prosciutto
- 6 cups loosely packed fresh spinach
- 1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Kosher salt and freshly ground back pepper
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1/4 cup olive oil
Place cutlets flat on the work surface. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lay one slice of prosciutto on top of each cutlet.
In a sauté pan, heat one tablespoon of the olive oil and add spinach, minced garlic and a few pinches of salt and pepper. Gently wilt spinach; do not overcook.
Place a layer of spinach on top of the prosciutto layer. Sprinkle generously with Parmesan. Roll up the cutlet and secure with a toothpick.
Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a heavy skillet over high heat. Add the chicken and cook just until nicely browned. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cover and place in a 350-degree oven until the chicken is just cooked through. Remove the chicken. Simmer the remaining liquid over high heat until it is reduced by about half. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Transfer chicken to each plate or a platter; drizzle with the reduced liquid. Be sure to remove toothpicks from before serving.
Pasta alla Norma
Eggplant has always been a favorite of my family. This recipe is our version of the famous Southern Italian dish.
- 1 pound pasta (I use either rigatoni or fettuccine)
- 1 medium eggplant, cubed
- 128-ounce can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
- ½ small yellow onion, puréed
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- ¾ cup olive oil
- 4 large, fresh basil leaves chopped, more for garnish
- Kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
In a saucepan, heat up four tablespoons of the olive oil. Gently sauté the puréed onions for about four minutes. Add the garlic clove (finely minced) and stir for another minute. Add the puréed tomatoes. Simmer on low for 10 minutes. Add the chopped fresh basil and simmer for five more minutes, and remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until nearly al dente.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a non-stick pan and fry the eggplant cubes until golden. Drain the eggplant cubes to remove the excess oil.
Transfer pasta to a sauté pan and add sauce (add amount of sauce to taste, I prefer a generous sauce to pasta ratio for this dish), and heat together until al dente. Plate the pasta. Top with fried eggplant and generously sprinkle with ricotta salata.
Sicilian Tuna Panino
My Nonna’s family is from the island of Salina, which is known as the caper capital of the world. So this naturally had to be on the Ragazza menu. It is a nice combination of flavors and is a great healthy alternative to traditional tuna salad.
- 2 6-ounce cans Albacore tuna
- 8 ounces canned cannellini beans (white kidney beans)
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons capers (or to taste)
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper (or to taste)
Purée beans, olive oil and lemon juice. Gently stir into crumbled Albacore tuna and then stir in drained capers. Add salt and pepper to taste. (Note that capers add to the salt level of the mixture so add salt last so as to not over-salt.) Serve on crusty bread and garnish with fresh sliced red onion and arugula.