A Kansas City, Mis­souri, chef shares his time-tested recipe for in­cred­i­ble pasta Bolog­nese.

Midwest Living - - Contents - WRITER Han­nah Agran PHO­TOG­RA­PHER EE Berger

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?



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