Gavoi is a small town of 2,000 people in the center of Sardinia. Santa Rughe is the restaurant in town, a low-slung stone building that is well-known beyond the roughly 14 square miles of the city limits. And it’s here, three years ago this March, that chef Alex Staab found what he wanted to do in Kansas City.
“It really made me fall in love with Italy. I got the flavor of Italy and learned how things were supposed to taste,” Staab says.
The chef, who you might know from his stints at the helm of Bella Napoli’s kitchen, is currently looking to open his own Italian restaurant in Kansas City. He wants it to be a place that reflects the current culinary climate in Italy.
“I make rustic dishes with cool flavors, but present them in a nicer way,” Staab says. “I want you to bite into it and still say, ‘Oh my God, this is Italy.’”
Staab, 31, was born in Kansas City, Missouri. A four-sport athlete, he graduated from Rockhurst High School and thought about walking on during Bill Snyder’s first tenure as the football coach at Kansas State University. After transferring to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Staab realized he wanted to be a chef.
“All of my fond memories related back to good times with friends and food. It was something that just made sense to me,” Staab says. “My dad’s side is German and his grandfather used to make his own sausage, while my mom’s side is Italian and nothing beats her sauce.”
At the age of 24, he began his cooking career when a family friend helped him get hired at Bella Napoli in 2006. Three years later he had an opportunity to go to New York City. Joe Drape, a reporter for The New York Times, managed to help him stage at Jean Georges and Mercer Kitchen in Trump Tower.
He got hired on at Cru and Inatesso under Eric Lind. In 2010, he returned to Kansas City and Bella Napoli.
“Going to New York was about learning proper technique and how to cook cleanly,” Staab says.
He began to experiment with the menu at the Brookside restaurant, updating classic Italian dishes with newer techniques. And in 2011, a manager arranged for him to visit a cousin in Gavio.
“The menu was classically Italian, but I really wanted to figure out what was going on in Italy right now,” Staab says.
At Santa Rughe, he learned the technique behind Italian flatbread and guanciale. He’d spent the day tending to a roasting suckling pig, brushing it with mulberry leaves that imparted a flavor akin to bay leaves. The pasta was made fresh daily. The speciality was gnoccheti sardi – a cousin to gnocchi topped with pureed ricotta, saffron and mint.
“I think food needs soul. The best food, no matter where it comes from, has to be soul food,” Staab says.
When he returned after his 16-day trip, Staab began to develop his identity in the kitchen. Bella Napoli started holding regional wine dinners. Staab also taught monthly classes. He’d bring in a group of foodies who wanted to learn the basics of Italian cooking. One month would focus on pork belly dishes while another would delve into making fresh pasta.
This year, Staab knew he was ready for a change and the chance to start with a menu from scratch. He left Bella Napoli at the end of January. He’s currently consulting for Snow & Company, helping to develop the menu for the original location in the Crossroads and the new spot under construction in Gladstone. Staab is also teaching classes and holding small wine dinners [He’s hosting a Tuscany-themed wine dinner on Saturday, March 15], while talking to several parties about opening his own restaurant.
“I have my vision of what Kansas City needs for an Italian place. We need a place that gives justice to what is really going on in Italy right now,” Staab says.
The Recommended Daily sat down with Staab to find out more about his approach in the kitchen.
What are your inspirations? It’s usually some interpretation of a classic. I look at what goes together. The other day I started with mushrooms and Brussels sprouts and agnolotti. Then I made a mushroom cream sauce, roasted the sprouts with rosemary and thyme and put truffle olive oil on top. It was really simple flavors, earthy and nuanced with a lot of depth. I start with one or two ingredients and spider up from there. I look at what goes well with this or what’s in season.
Where do you like to eat? Room 39 and Pot Pie. I like places where people do food really well and I’ve never been disappointed at either of those restaurants. Pot Pie does chicken really well.
What’s your favorite barbecue in town? I go to Oklahoma Joe’s and get the beef brisket or like everybody I get the Z-man. I’ll get fries and a Coke. Their meat is never really dry and it’s always seasoned well. The sauces are really good. The biggest thing for barbecue is consistency.
Will any of your mom’s recipes make it on to your menu? I’ll probably do some version of her tomato sauce. She cooks it with a bunch of pork ribs and meatballs. It’s Sunday gravy and it has great flavor. We ran a special at Bella Napoli — spuntature, it was slow cooked ends of the pork ribs.
What’s your go to kitchen story? We used to have a bathroom next to a kitchen I worked in and whenever anyone was inside, somebody would slide pieces of wax paper under the door. It was Anthony Bourdain-esque because the pieces of paper were on fire. But that was years ago.
Do you have a dream eating and drinking destination? Sardinia and Gaudalajara. My wife is from there [Gaudalajara] and it’s a beautiful city. I’ll have tacos with tongue and onions and red hot salsa. That was breakfast there.