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Italian Americans Influenced a Unique Taco in Kansas City

Kansas City may be better known for slow-smoked barbecue than for tacos, but the city is home to a unique taco invented locally created by the fusion of Mexican cuisine and the local Italian American community. The unique style of taco is deep fried, sealed shut with a toothpick, and then topped with Italian-style Parmesan cheese, and became a local favorite a half century ago.  

Italian immigrants began arriving in Kansas City in the 1860s, although the local Italian American community only started taking shape in the1890s. The majority of these Italians were arriving from Sicily and spoke a Sicilian dialect. Many of the Italians settling here worked in the railroad industry. 

By 1920, there were close to 10,000 Italians living in Kansas City, and the residents began calling the neighborhood Little Italy. They settled in what was at the time referred to as the North End, but since renamed Columbus Park after the Italian explorer. There are still signs of the Italian past in Columbus Park like Garozzo's, an Italian restaurant operating since 1989. 

Mexican food in America was not as widespread as it is today. Canned tamales were actually one of the first Mexican-inspired cuisines to achieve national attention, not tacos. But by the midcentury, tacos were starting to end up outside of border states like Texas. For instance, the inventor of Chicago's deep dish pizza had initially intended to open a Mexican restaurant.  

In 1949, Los Corrals opened in Kansas City featuring a deep-fried taco topped with Parmesan cheese. The crunchy tacos are held together with a toothpick. There isn't anything traditional about parmesan cheese on tacos, but as José R. Ralat, author of American Tacos: A History and Guide, explains, because of the thriving Italian American community in Kansas City, the cheese was readily available.

These Kansas City-style tacos weren't exactly overnight sensations. Luis Silva, a Mexican immigrant from Guadalajara, helped make the taco a local success when he opened Spanish Gardens Taco House in 1958. This restaurant led to a boom in the Kansas City-style tacos' popularity, and by the 1960s and 1970s, other taquerias and restaurants began imitating the originals. 

Italian and Mexican cuisine remained intertwined in Kansas City. One Los Corrals competitor, the Humdinger Drive-In, even sold Italian hero sandwiches alongside the tacos and other offerings. 

Over the next several decades, Kansas City-style tacos topped with Parmesan cheese became increasingly popular and a hallmark style of the city. Manny's Mexican Restaurant, now well-known as a go-to spot for the taco style, didn't open until the 1980s. Manny's sells thousands of tacos each week.

In their version, the restaurant uses a custom-manufactured eight-inch corn tortilla and fills them with their special mixture of ground beef. Toothpicks hold them together as they are fried, and then they are topped with lettuce and parmesan cheese. Unfortunately, as customers seek out “authenticity” in their food, this unique style of taco is beginning to see popularity waning. Customers want tacos they perceive as more Mexican.

Ian MacAllen

Ian MacAllen is America Domani's Senior Correspondent and the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.


Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.