Published September 6th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
As a teenager working in downtown Kansas City in the 1990s, Theresa Santos found herself spending her breaks and spare time at the Italian Gardens restaurant at 12th and Baltimore.
Growing up in New York City and infatuated with Italian culture and food, Santos quickly became friends with the staff — then the owners themselves: the DiCapo family.
“Before I knew it, we were super close. The entire Italian Gardens’ family watched over me and supported me. … We’ve stayed in contact all these years. So when a pizzeria spot at Parlor opened up, a lot of different pizzerias auditioned to get to (the space). I had the idea of taking the owners of Parlor to Italian Gardens for lunch, and they fell in love with it,” said Santos, the owner of Khalia’s Pizzeria and Ting’s Filipino Bistro, both inside Parlor’s East Crossroads food hall.
Khalia’s Pizzeria, which opened in July, is inspired by Italian Gardens — blending generational recipes of the DiCapo family with original dishes by the Khalia’s Pizzeria team.
“I wanted to keep it true to the Sicilian tradition that Italian Gardens had — their square pizzas, the homemade sauce, homemade everything,” Santos said. “They’ve had the same recipes passed down from generation to generation. Khalia’s offers a lot of their staples, and then we experimented with Italian concepts and created some of our own favorites.”
The original Italian Gardens location was opened in 1925 by John Bondon and was owned and operated by various members of the family for five generations until 2003 when the restaurant’s downtown location closed.
John David DiCapo — the son of well-known restaurateur Carl DiCapo — started DiCapo Foods with his mother, Anita Louise, in 1997. The duo began hand-making Italian cookies that took off and sold in grocery stores across the metro, John David DiCapo recalled.
“My mom’s 87, and she’s been here from the beginning,” DiCapo shared. “Of course I couldn’t have made it this far without her.”
Needing a kitchen to fill the high demand, the mother-son duo secured a spot in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts Center in 1999. That spot later became known as both Italian Gardens Pizzeria and DiCapo Foods, serving as both a restaurant and order fulfillment center.”
“I’ve been in the family business for 50 years now, and I’m really tired from it,” DiCapo admitted. “So when Theresa approached me asking if we would consider partnering on the pizzeria in Parlor, I said, ‘I will do it on one condition.’”
Dicapo’s request: Santos would buy the Italian Gardens Pizzeria and DiCapo Foods’ cookies business from him.
“I’ve known Theresa for a long time, and she is driven,” DiCapo said. “The restaurant business is not for everyone, but someone like her, who has grown up in the industry, knows what it’s going to take. She already has a couple of successful businesses (such as Ting’s Filipino Bistro), so this will be just the icing on the cake for her.”
Santos considered the offer an honor, she shared, noting that DiCapo has been her mentor for many years. And, he will continue to be in the picture.
“We need to keep DiCapo (Foods’) cookies and Italian Gardens Pizzeria successful, so I’m going to keep my eye on her,” he teased, laughing. “I’m not just going to sell it and run down the street. I’ll still be here to consult with and help her through the transition.”
Italian Gardens Pizzeria/DiCapo Foods in the East Crossroads will be rebranded to Khalia’s Pizzeria inspired by Italian Gardens and is set to open in fall 2022. The restaurant part of the business is currently closed and will remain closed until Santos finalizes ownership of the business, DiCapo noted.
Named after Santos’ youngest daughter, Khalia’s Pizzeria is a celebration of family and staff, Santos said — noting that hiring a solid team and treating them like family is something she learned from the DiCapos.
Santos opened her first restaurant, Ting’s Filipino Bistro, in Parlor in January 2022. By the end of 2022, she’s set to be the owner of four restaurants across the metro: two Khalia’s Pizzeria locations and two Ting’s locations — one in Parlor and the other in the City Market.
“Ting’s City Market location has a lot more street food options because people are walking around to shop at the farmer’s market — you need a lot more handhelds,” Santos noted.
Ting’s on 39th Street was set to open this summer, but because of unanticipated structural issues within the build, the opening is being put on pause, Santos said.
The past year has been met with many ups and downs, she shared, but owning and operating her own restaurants has ultimately been a dream come true.
“I’ve always wanted a Filipino restaurant, but it was such an honor for John to offer me to take over the Italian Gardens’ business,” Santos said. “Anyone who grew up in Kansas City knows exactly what Italian Gardens means to this community. I can only hope I represent them to the best of my ability and as long as I can. This is me paying homage to Italian Gardens.”
Channa Steinmetz is a reporter for Startland News, where this story first appeared. Startland News is a member of the KC Media Collective.