Published November 2nd, 2020 at 11:30 AM
Years ago in Brookside, Sutera’s Restaurant was a popular joint that served hot Scicilian food with an even hotter side of sports gambling.
Located where Michael Forbes Bar & Grille now stands, Sutera’s was a clubhouse of sorts for some of Kansas City’s most high profile mob figures. A curiousKC follower had a lot of questions about what went down at Sutera’s, so here are the details.
In 1976, Vince and Agnes Sutera opened Sutera’s Old San Francisco Restaurant and Bar in the West Bottoms. Vince and Agnes were used to feeding their nine children, James (Jim), John, Joe, Jerome (Jerry), Jeff, Jay, Charlie, Joan, and Jean, so opening a restaurant wasn’t all that different from cooking a Sunday dinner. Kansas Citians flocked to the homestyle Sicilian food, and in 1982 Joe and Jeff opened the Brookside location where Michael Forbes Bar & Grille is now.
Sutera’s hosted many notable guests in its heyday — some more infamous than others. Broadcaster Walt Bodine frequented Sutera’s, alongside some of the most high-profile leaders of Kansas City’s crime family such as Peter J. Simone, Carlo Cavallaro and P.J. Ribaste.
At that time in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, Simone was a notorious mob underboss. Cavallaro and Ribaste were also on the FBI’s watchlist for being bookmakers, the people who take bets, calculate odds, and pay out winnings.
Kansas City’s mobsters weren’t just at Sutera’s for the free lunches — they were working. James Sutera ran an illegal gambling ring out of the Sutera’s in Brookside for at least four years.
According to the FBI case, the investigation of this gambling business began in the spring of 1988 with the surveillance of Carlo Cavallaro. Cavallaro was seen frequently entering the West Bottoms location of the Sutera’s Old San Francisco Restaurant. This led the FBI to suspect gambling activity at the Brookside location.
An FBI agent and a detective from the Kansas CIty Police Department started to stake out the Sutera’s in Brookside and witnessed sports gambling and heard frequent discussion about past and upcoming games. They also saw line sheets being passed back and forth, as well as what appeared to be envelopes of cash.
At that point they had enough evidence to bug the restaurant and wiretap the restaurant phone, James’ home phone, and the phones of several suspects. According to the FBI, it was revealed that Edward Searing, another member of Kansas City’s crime family, was “operating a central bookmaking network consisting of other bookmakers, of which Sutera was one, and numerous players.” At one point James tried to say that he was simply taking over for his brother Jeff. (Jeff denied this claim and James later recanted it.)
On a busy weekend, upwards of 40 gamblers could be found at Sutera’s, with bets sometimes totaling $125,000. In today’s money, that’s roughly $275,000 being passed inconspicuously in unmarked white envelopes.
On Oct. 13, 1989, a grand jury indicted James and five others for several offenses relating to the gambling, including money laundering. James was convicted and sentenced to 33 months in prison without parole.
“Jim Sutera was a bookie, just like scores of guys in scores of bars and taverns across the KC metro area who would take bets from fellow patrons of the respective establishments,” said Paul Schepers, an attorney and friend of Sutera.
“Unlike the multitude of other bookies in the metro area in the mid-, late-80s, Jim had the misfortune of being in a place persons of interest to the FBI occasionally patronized. Jim’s ‘operation’ came to the attention of law enforcement through surveillance of those individuals.”
Despite the gambling scandal, the Sutera family continued in the restaurant business. A Sutera’s restaurant is still serving the family recipes in Shawnee, at 22716 Midland Drive.
In retrospect, some might see Sutera’s gambling operation as merely being ahead of its time. Today nearly 20 states allow legal sports betting, and more are in the pipeline.
If this sounds like it should have been happening on an episode of “The Sopranos” and not in our humble cowtown, think again. Here’s some more on Kansas City’s rich and colorful mafia history.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the following. James Sutera was not in possession of “$90,000 worth of stolen cigarettes, hand grenades, and other explosives” at the time of his arrest on bookmaking charges, as stated in the original article. Sutera was in possession of a “dummy grenade” he acquired while serving in the Army, which he used as a paperweight. In addition, the original article incorrectly stated that nearly 40 years in which the Sutera family fed Kansas Citians ended in 2015. A Sutera’s restaurant is still serving the family recipes in Shawnee, at 22716 Midland Drive.
Catherine Hoffman covers community and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.