K.C. restaurant to celebrities closes

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

— The Italian Gardens, a downtown Kansas City restaurant that had been a favorite of local power brokers and visiting celebrities, has closed after 78 years.

A note taped to the door Monday said the restaurant, was "out of business." The management thanked its customers but listed no reason for the closing.

"It's tough, it's tough; but you make decisions in life, and you live with them," John Bondon, president of the restaurant, said Monday night.

Bondon declined to comment at length because as a member of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, he was focusing most of his attention on the shooting of John Friedman, the authority's executive director. Friedman, shot Sunday at a car wash, was hospitalized in critical condition.

Italian Gardens was founded in 1925 at 13th and Walnut streets, and in 1933 moved to its current location near 11th Street and Baltimore Avenue, with the help of a $1,500 loan from one of its waitresses.

Its name temporarily changed to The Gardens during World War II because of anti-Italian prejudice.

Years ago, when downtown Kansas City nightlife was more lively, the restaurant served customers including singer Frank Sinatra, actress Katharine Hepburn and baseball star Joe DiMaggio. Actor Anthony Quinn had a birthday party there, and the singer Frankie Avalon once found sanctuary in the restaurant when hundreds of fans were chasing him down the street.

Carl DiCapo spent 46 years at the restaurant, moving from cashier to chairman of the board. When he retired six years ago, he shut the door on that part of his life and has rarely returned.

"It's a sad day for me, but life goes on," DiCapo said.

He said he was proud of the Gardens' legacy.

"It was the oldest restaurant run by the same family in the state of Missouri," DiCapo said. "We were hands-on, there from the time that people came in the door. And we offered them the best food possible for a good price. But so many restaurants have closed downtown. You can't live by lunch alone."

Between 1994 and 1997 the restaurant failed four city food inspections. Management made a point of cleaning up the building, and in late 1999, the restaurant received a near-perfect score, earning praise from inspectors.

Jerry Gaines, permanent director of the Missouri Restaurant Assn., said Italian Gardens survived for so long because the restaurant owners also owned the building it operated in.

"It's going to be sorely missed," Gaines said. "There are too many places to eat, too many chains, and people don't go back downtown to eat. You're going to see more independents bite the dust."