A Garden’s Glory Days

Italian Gardens restaurant owner Carl DiCapo remembers a time when downtown Kansas City was so busy that he could barely fit on its crowded sidewalks. To save time delivering shoes for his father’s shoe repair business, a young DiCapo ditched navigating the bustling walkways and ran the back alleys instead. 

It’s just one of the portraits of our fair city that DiCapo paints in his book Italian Gardens: A History of Kansas City Through its Favorite Restaurant. Written by DiCapo, his son John David and Frank Hayde, the book is, as its title suggests, about much more than just a restaurant. In its 78-year run, the Italian Gardens at 12th and Baltimore became a microcosm for the diverse cross-section of society that worked and played–sometimes a bit too hard–both inside and outside its doors.

Hayde combines material from hundreds of interviews to create vivid and revealing stories about Italian Gardens that span decades of Kansas City history. Because it stood at the intersection between swanky Baltimore Street, (which boasted upscale venues like the Muehlebach Hotel and The Orpheum Theater) and seedy 12th Street (rife with girly joints) the restaurant drew folks from all walks of life. 

At The Gardens, backroom deals were given front-room billing with infamous guests like Tom Pendergast and Johnny Lazia. (Interestingly, Lazia agreed to stop frequenting the place after customers expressed fears about getting shot.) Famous guests kindly signed autographs: boxing great Rocky Marciano, athletes Phil Rizzuto and Joe DiMaggio and movie star Rita Hayworth. Common folks felt special at Italian Gardens too, where they enjoyed the first air conditioning, Muzak and spumoni ice cream offered by a Kansas City restaurant. 

The stories of Italian Gardens also include the rough-and-tumble you might suspect, and–as long as you weren’t on the receiving end–it only adds to the book’s charm. Amidst plates heaped with spaghetti, veal parmigiano, and toasted raviolis, customers and even a few employees pack heat, start fights or give chase with a frequency akin to a bygone era. (“It’s true we got in a lot of fights down there,” says DiCapo’s son with all earnestness, “but we never beat up anybody that didn’t deserve it.”)

In recent history, the restaurant gave birth to some of Kansas City’s best public events and claims-to-fame, including the revitalization of the World War I Memorial and Kansas City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “At that first parade we had 16 people and a dog,” laughs DiCapo, “and we counted the dog as a person so we could say we had 17.” 

In his book’s final chapters, DiCapo relates the painful waning of downtown Kansas City and the subsequent closing of his beloved Italian Gardens in 2003. Now a parking garage, he drives by but looks away from the spot where the city’s history once lived so fully. As his reader, you can’t help but want it to live again.

words: Cisley Thummel