Rustic Italian cuisine checks in at the Hotel Phillips' Tavernonna Italian kitchen.
What makes a good meatball?
It’s something to do with the shape — a meatball should be big enough to cause a widening of the eyes, but not so gargantuan that you doubt whether you’ll be able to put the whole thing down. You’ve got to have primo beef, too — there’s no such thing as a juicy turkey meatball. Fresh herbs are a must. And if you want this meatball to be so tear-jerkingly tender that even your imaginary Italian nonna would double-kiss both your cheeks in joy, you better not overwork the mix.
These are the basic guiding principles that chef Bryant Wigger has taken into his meatball recipe. And when your order of “Nonna’s Meatballs” arrives to your table at Tavernonna — two plump baseballs covered in a robust pomodoro sauce and house-made ricotta — you will be forgiven for pinching your thumb to your pointer and index fingers and exclaiming an emotional “Mamma mia!”
The perfection of Wigger’s meatballs is owed in part to their 100-percent beef brisket composition. Lots of natural fat — plus garlic, fresh thyme, lemon zest and just a rumor of panko — make for a bite so bright and flavorful you may ask yourself what you’ve really been doing with your life up until this moment.
But there is lots more to explore on Wigger’s menu. Tavernonna opened in December inside the newly remodeled Hotel Phillips with an eye toward rustic Italian cuisine — a style of food Wigger has been cooking for the last decade. Wigger, a native of Clarksdale, Missouri, is happy to return to his roots after spending 15 years working in hotel kitchens in California.
In a show of local enthusiasm, it is Wigger’s goal to source ingredients for Tavernonna’s dishes as locally as possible — including the Angus beef provided by Maryville’s Hatfield Ranch. Herbs and greens come from Missing Ingredient in the Crossroads and City Bitty Farm in Kansas City, pork and chickens are from Barham Family Farm in Kearney and whatever bread is not made in house comes from Farm to Market. It’s a good deal more community-focused than you might expect from a hotel restaurant owned by an out-of-town investment company (Arbor Lodging Partners is headquartered in Chicago).
Wigger has successfully eschewed his corporate overlords, and thank goodness for that, because Tavernonna’s menu is infused with a lot of heart and soul — and bonus: it’s the good-tasting Italian kind.
Any Italian meal starts with antipasti (literally “before pasta”), and in addition to Nonna’s Meatballs ($11), you’re going to want to sign up for that bruschetta ($8). Two hunks of lightly toasted ciabatta are spread with a bright pesto of blanched English peas, garlic and mint, topped with Spanish goat cheese, hazelnuts and suckling pig ham that Wigger makes himself. This ham alone makes the dish worth it, and I would heartily recommend you consider the salumi board ($16) to experience larger quantities of it in its naked purity.
Tavernonna has one soup (tomato) and several crowd-pleasing salads to tempt your inner green goddess. Of these, the baby kale salad ($11) is perhaps most worthy. Shallots, whole-grain mustard and capers give the cider vinaigrette a leg up on ordinary, and each leaf has the benefit of being expertly coated.
There is no wood-burning oven in the kitchen at Tavernonna — it’s not a pizzeria — but there are four pizza options to choose from, in case that is a necessary part of your Italian dining experience. In that case, do yourself a big favor and order the truffle pizza ($13). Cremini and oyster mushrooms are layered on top of bechamel, their earthy flavors tangling with a luxurious mass of Taleggio. Fresh truffle is grated liberally overtop. “This,” you will remark to your companions between eager mouthfuls, “is what eating should always be like!”
None of Tavernonna’s pizzas are full-sized pies — they’re more of a shareable app or meal-for-one. Crust fanatics will find a lot to love in Wigger’s Roman-style dough, which boasts a 38-year-old sourdough starter — it’s a little less chewy and more bread-y than a Neapolitan crust.
Pasta is a serious enterprise at Tavernonna, and all of it is made fresh in house with the exception of the baked ziti, which Wigger gets dry so that the noodle keeps its shape in the oven. The spaghetti noodles are thicker than average, almost like bucatini, and they come out with imperfect kinks that reinforce the rustic pleasure of the spaghetti cacio e pepe (“cheese and pepper,” $15). This classic, simple Roman dish dates back thousands of years — it was a staple for shepherds, who carried Pecorino Romano, pepper and dried pasta in their bags — and there is little to it beyond the name. At Tavernonna, a poached egg tops this happy pile.
Wigger’s talents are on full display in the rigatoni ($18). The tubular noodles are a toothsome al dente, but his true accomplishment is the braised brisket chuck Bolognese. You’ll need a map to navigate the depths of flavor that Wigger works up (note the veal stock and minced anchovies). There’s just a whisper of heat in this sauce, and it left a friendly tickle in the back of my throat.
It wasn’t until the entrees arrived that I felt the first sting of disappointment. My branzino ($26) was masterfully prepared, but why did it have to be served on a lukewarm bed of beluga lentils choked in sherry vinegar? On paper, the porchetta ($18) sounded delightful, but when it arrived, the pork was too dry to be saved by the sweet peach mostarda and balsamic glaze that had been latticed over it, and the pickled peaches staring up from the frisee salad would have benefited from a few more days of maturation before they were preserved.
The requisite flat iron steak with roasted fingerlings ($29) is for the steak-and-potatoes crowd, and they will not be disappointed. Wigger lets the eight ounces of beef carry the dish, and it’s a solid bet. My medium-rare came out closer to rare, but if I appreciate timidity anywhere in the kitchen, it’s what it comes to temping steaks: It’s far easier, after all, for a chef to cook something a little more than to cook something less. (I kept mine as it came — it was seasoned perfectly.)
There is a handful of dessert options, including gelato and sorbetto from Glacé, but you should focus on the ricotta bombolini ($8). These beignet-like beauties are lighter than daydreams, and they sit in a proud little pile next to a smear of sweet lemon curd and crushed pistachio freckles. The chocolate mousse with salted caramel and espresso whipped cream ($8) holds no surprises, but there’s something appealing about such a faithful dessert.
Italy-minded oenophiles will note, with pleasure, a short but confident wine list that seeks to offer guests options from all the major regions (and even a few of the lesser-known ones — there are a handful of bottles from Friuli). Prices are moderate, and you can find a good bottle for around $50. The cocktail list is likewise dependable with a range of well-known and well-done offerings, including an Aperol Spritz (Italy’s unofficial national drink) and an Amalfi Sour featuring the house-made limoncello. The limoncello is excellent, and I highly recommend having it on its own with a few ice cubes.
On several occasions, I have noted both the stature of Tavernonna — the restaurant boasts 81 seats, not including 25 in the bar area — and the relative informality. Some things were at odds: My silverware was reset between every course, but entrees were delivered while I was in the restroom. Tables are massive, hulking wooden slabs designed, I assume, to accommodate laptops for working lunches; they ended up making my guests feel very far apart from one another (though not uncomfortable). High ceilings and hard wooden floors meant that, despite not being even half-full, we could hear every trill of boisterous laughter from the bar. This is all well and fine in a pub, but Tavernonna does not want to be a pub— it wants to be a cozy trattoria.
These are small complaints. On the whole, much of what Tavernonna does — thanks in no small part to the majority of Wigger’s menu — lines up so smoothly, you’re likely to walk away convinced you’re a little Italian yourself. Italian cuisine enjoys an enviable global legacy, but one of its defining characteristics is its approachability. Emphasis is always, unfailingly on how good the food tastes — not so much on how it looks (though it is often beautiful) or where you eat it. Wigger understands this notion completely. In his kitchen, classic Italian recipes and traditions provide a roadmap to some truly brilliant discoveries — those meatballs, my God — and, more importantly, some very good eating.
106 W. 12th St., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 221-7000, tavernonna.com. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 6:30 a.m. Monday through Wednesday, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.