ONE CHEF. ONE NIGHT. ONE SAUCE.
A Kansas City, Missouri, chef shares his time-tested recipe for incredible pasta Bolognese.
Howard Hanna loves meat. He also makes beautifully tender pappardelle. And he’s a bear of a guy who radiates generosity. So when it came time for the Kansas City, Missouri, chef to celebrate the second anniversary of The Rieger, an idea flashed like a wink: For one evening, let’s trade fine dining for the homiest pasta and meat sauce you could ever crave on a winter night.
Whims like that have a funny way of becoming tradition. Since 2012, almost everyone who walks into The Rieger’s dining room during its public anniversary party (December 20 this year) orders the special: Caesar salad, garlic bread and
Bolognese, all served bottomless. If that sounds like the Olive Garden, your irony meter is well-tuned.
“Those in the know are waiting for it all year,” Howard says. “People don’t remember the exact date, but as it gets close, they’re asking about it.” He sees the evening as an annual thank-you. The streamlined menu gives his staff a break. Regulars love the deal on gourmet comfort food. Plus, it’s fun. Howard holds court in the open kitchen, and when diners want seconds, they raise a flag on the table.
Howard grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, but he trained under Italian chefs. Describing the hours-long process of making ragù alla Bolognese, he employs the word soul about 15 times: “At the end of the first day, I like to step back and look at it. Fifteen pounds of meat, all of its essence, all of its flavor, wine, stock, tomato sauce, vegetables, all reduced down to this thick, meaty, soulful sauce. It’s beautiful and always makes me happy.”
Howard’s version of Bolognese strays a little from tradition. He prefers not to add cream or milk and, hewing to local strengths, he’s increased the ratio of pork to beef. “One of the best agricultural products of the Midwest is our pork,” he explains. “Traditional Bolognese in Bologna might be equal parts beef, veal and pork. Mine is true to the intent of the original, but I’m adapting it to what we’re best at.”
The Rieger’s home near Kansas City's Union Station is long-cooked and strongly local, too. The narrow brick building was a hotel in the early 20th century. Its owner was Alexander Rieger, whose immigrant father founded J. Rieger and Company distillery in 1887. Prohibition eventually shuttered the whiskey business (then the country’s largest mailorder liquor operation). And as cars overtook trains, the hotel closed, too. But the building survived.
In 2010, happenstance blew the dust off this forgotten chapter of KC history. Bartender Ryan Maybee opened a speakeasy called Manifesto in the old hotel’s basement. A year later, he and Howard launched The Rieger upstairs. On the restaurant’s opening night, a descendant of the original family, Andy, came in to say thanks for preserving the family name. He met Ryan at the bar. Within hours, they’d hatched a plan to bring back J. Rieger whiskey. It launched in 2014 as the city's first modern distillery (and a huge expansion is underway for this spring).
Howard isn’t tied directly to that business, but he cherishes the link. Manifesto still operates below, in a stone-walled space that feels like a cave. He and Ryan restored a faded whiskey ad on the building’s side. J. Rieger memorabilia hangs on the restaurant’s walls. Its tile floor is original, emblazoned with the letter R. And his bar staff makes cocktails using, of course, J. Rieger spirits. The restaurant isn’t even a decade old, but it has the feel and flavor of a classic.
And for that one night each December, it has the aroma of one, too. “I wish I had grown up with Grandma simmering Bolognese,” Howard laughs. “The whole restaurant smells so good.” What, he adds, could be a warmer way to welcome visitors into your home at Christmastime than that?
“ONE OF THE BEST AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS OF THE MIDWEST IS OUR PORK.” HOWARD HANNA