The first time I walked into Mike Parise’s Italian restaurant north of Columbus, Kan., on Highway 7, Mike was sitting in the lobby behind a podium holding what appeared to be a reservation book.
“Are you a member of the club?” Mike asked.
When I said that I wasn’t, Mike asked me if I wanted to join.
“What do I get if I join?” I asked.
“You get to order a drink. If you’re not in the club, you can’t,” Mike said.
I joined the club.
Of course, that was many years ago, when Kansas liquor laws were even more confusing. In those days, the only way restaurants could serve alcohol was if they formed a private club, so many restaurants, including Mike’s, would charge folks a nominal fee for the privilege of belonging to their club.
The private club thing really wasn’t a big deal. It was just my first memory of Mike and his restaurant, which was known as Mike’s Fine Foods. Of course, my favorite memory of Mike’s Fine Foods was — follow me here — the fine food. And one of the most popular items on the menu was Mike’s fried ravioli topped with his great red sauce. Note that I said the fried ravioli was “one” of the most popular items on the menu. Some people would argue that Mike’s regular ravioli, which was boiled, was more popular than the fried. Or that his meatballs were the best thing on the menu.
Many people, by the way, assume that the fried ravioli was inspired by the dish made popular in St. Louis. But Mary Trant, Mike’s niece, said that was not the case.
Mary said that one day in the late 1960s, she and her cousin Frankie Parise had been helping roll ravioli in the kitchen to be boiled.
“We were hungry, and we had these leftover pieces of ravioli,” she said. “So rather than boil them, Mike just threw them in the hot grease, and we poured sauce over them.”
Sometime later, Lee George, a former longtime weatherman at KODE-TV, was in the kitchen chatting with Mike and got a chance to sample the fried ravioli.
‘He said, ‘These are good. You should put them on the menu,’” Mary said.
It would be great to say that the fried ravioli was an instant hit, but Mary said that wasn’t the case. She said at first, the restaurant would probably sell one order of fried ravioli for every 10 orders of regular ravioli.
“But then it (the fried ravioli) just took off,” she said.
Mike was a big man with a big personality. He was a talented musician, and he and his band traveled and performed all over the area. Later, Mike added a room onto his restaurant so he and his band could perform there. Unfortunately, Mike passed away on Aug. 28, 2002, and, as Mary said, the “restaurant died with him.”
But fans of Mike’s Fine Foods have a rare chance to get on the outside of some of his most famous and best Italian dishes. Mary and her cousin Frank are selling frozen, uncooked packages of the fried or regular ravioli, and meatballs and sauce as a fundraiser for the Mike Parise and Joe Ferraro Memorial Fund. Proceeds will be donated to St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Scammon, Kan. Since Mary and Frankie grew up in Mike’s Fine Foods and spent a great deal of their lives working in the kitchen, you can be assured that you’re getting the real deal here and not some cheap imitation.
A package of 20 ravioli is $10, and a package of a dozen meatballs in sauce is also $10. A package of meatballs without the sauce is $8, and an extra quart of sauce costs $5.
Orders will be taken until Dec. 30. The ravioli, meatballs and sauce are selling like crazy, and any orders placed now won’t be ready until after Christmas, Mary said. To place your order, you may email Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org. or call St. Bridget’s at 620-479-2601.
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