Making your way up the driveway to the garage door of Tony Liotta’s house on North Quincy on a chilly September afternoon, you can already smell his latest labor of love. Like any good Italian, within minutes of stepping into his kitchen, whether an old friend or a stranger, he’s served you homemade olive oil and bread, and his dish of the day, hot and fresh spring rolls.
An immigrant from Camporeale, Sicily, who arrived in 1980, Liotta’s passion lies in his gardens, which are lush with the fruits and vegetables of his homeland. On his annual visits to Italy for the grape harvest, he brings seeds back to grow in the backyards along his street, and insists he will never buy a vegetable from the supermarket that he can grow.
A farmer for as long as he can remember, Liotta quit school when he was young after a devastating earthquake hit his community, which closed the school and made it necessary for him to work to help his family while they lived in a tent for two years, while recovering from the damage.
As a young man, his family set him up with the daughter of a family friend, who had already immigrated to America, and who Liotta had seen a photo of years before. Two weeks later, he married the love of his life, Sandra. He eventually joined her in Northeast Kansas City and they made their home on North Quincy Avenue, where they raised their children and always had a full house.
After his wife died from ovarian cancer four years ago, Liotta was left searching for projects to fill his time.
“He was always growing and she was always canning or pickling, or whatever,” their daughter, Lilla Liotta, said, showing the second kitchen the Liottas added in the basement to process their produce. “My mom used to just, day and night, she was always in this kitchen cooking whatever that came from the garden or hunting or from the animals.”
Since she’s been gone, Liotta’s gardens have tripled or quadrupled. Over the years, he has been buying houses on his street to renovate and rent, which is where he plants the gardens. Liotta is kept company by his little dog, Lola, who he got from a neighbor as a puppy. She is about the size of Liotta’s massive basil leaves.
Anita Byrne, who lives on Brighton Avenue, has been watching Liotta’s urban garden expand for three years and thought his good deeds were worthy of attention.
“My friend Judith rents from him, he is good about caring for her apartment,” Byrne said. “I’ve seen some really bad landlords in recent years, and it is a relief to see one who doesn’t neglect renters.”
Byrne said Liotta is always out and about, chatting with his neighbors. If he notices they haven’t left for work in the morning, he calls to make sure they aren’t sick.
“I always tell him, ‘Dad, get out of peoples’ business,’ but they’re used to it, they’ve lived here their whole lives,” Lilla said, adding that when people stop by, they never leave empty handed.
Liotta, the unofficial Mayor of Quincy, said he knows everyone on his block, and they all have mutual respect for each other.
“These neighborhoods can get pretty rough, but I think that having a lot of the old people on this block and the newer people, and Dad just taking care of everyone, I don’t think everybody worries about it, you know what I mean?” Lilla said.
Liotta gives away the produce he doesn’t use to his tenants or other neighbors, and he likes to swap meals and recipes with other immigrants on his street.
“Me and my wife bought this house in 1988,” Liotta said. “I have a nice, good neighborhood, we all watch out for each other.”
Walking through his gardens, he shared his favorite recipes and pointed out ingredients familiar to those who cook Italian food like eggplant, a variety of tomatoes, basil, Sicilian mint, oregano, cardunas and figs.
“Those plants, they don’t like cold weather,” Liotta said. He has adapted the foreign plants to his Missouri soil by keeping the ground warm enough to preserve the cardunas, a relative of the artichoke, throughout the winter. He also builds his fig trees shelters from the cold with insulated pieces left over from the industrial fridges he assembled for 23 years. In the summer, the branches of his fig trees are attached to ropes so he can pull them down to easily harvest the ripe fruits.
He also grows American favorites including fruit trees, pumpkins, chestnuts, cucumbers, broccoli, beets, green beans and grapes, just to name a few. Liotta grafts his fruit trees to take advantage of the deep roots of older trees to grow new varieties.
“You know how cool it is to be an urban farmer? My dad’s the original urban farmer,” Lilla said, noting his innovation.
Liotta’s Italian vegetables grow to fantastic sizes, but the most magical sight is the humongous Italian squash, cucuzza, swinging from a canopy of their leaves and vines between two roofs. This year, he thinks they were cross pollinated with another variety of squash because they are much thicker and greener than usual.
Byrne’s favorite sight is a huge tree that had to be cut, but the trunk, which remains standing, is covered with vines that produce cucuzza that grows “as large as a child’s leg.”
“He does everything in abundance, like the 500 spring rolls today, everything is always extreme in the Liotta house,” Lilla said, hardly exaggerating.
Every time Liotta mentioned another project, like the 15 peach trees he’s growing on St. John, his daughter would affectionately question him, ‘Since when?’ at which he would just laugh.
Liotta, one of the self-proclaimed last generation of Italian immigrants coming to Kansas City, and is one of the few who has remained in the old Italian neighborhoods of Northeast.
“I’ve got to stay because of where my property is, that’s why I’m still here,” Liotta said. “I’m comfortable. Nobody bothers me, nobody has touched me, nobody’s done anything, so I’m comfortable.”