Traditional restaurants and classic drinks and dishes of Des Moines



By Jim Duncan


Des Moines’ daily paper set off a lively debate in March about what should be considered the “essential restaurants” of the city. Such lists always upset someone, but this one particularly drew ire of fans of long-time city favorites. We thought it was time to throw our point of view on this fire.

As far as historians know, Aristotle coined the word “essence” and defined it as the attribute, or set of attributes, that make an entity what it fundamentally is, and without which, it loses its identity. So a linguist could argue that the essential restaurants of a city are those that distinguish it from other cities of similar demographics. In Des Moines, that means Calabrese restaurants more than anything else. We count 14 such places in town, all but two missing from the top 50 list. All have Calabrese origins, many still are Calabrese owned. Notice that the behemoth Olive Garden, which opened its first imitation Calabrese store in 1982, has no stores in Des Moines. It doesn’t sell $8 billion a year by being stupid.

For our money, these constitute the essence of our restaurant scene. When the Greater Des Moines Civic Center opened in the late 1970s, a survey of the first sold-out crowd asked, “What in Des Moines is worth a 100-mile drive?” The No. 1 answer revealed a tourist attraction that most locals had taken for granted — Italian restaurants.

Since the first Italian food store Candy Bunoni opened in 1906, Italian-Americans have become the dominant restaurateurs of the city.

By the 1940s, “Willy Pedro’s,” Jennie Renda’s “Aunt Jennie’s” and Joe Amino’s “Wimpy’s” were drawing visitors to the southside. During World War II, Alphonsus “Babe” Bisignano put the culinary genre on the map. “Babe’s” became a cultural phenomenon, especially appealing to WACs. By the late 1950s, “Johnny and Kay’s,” “Vic’s Tally Ho,” “Caesar’s,” “Luigi‘s,” “The Latin King” and “Babe’s” dominated fine dining in the city. “Gary Fatino’s,” “Rocky’s White Shutter Inn,” “Noah’s,” “Mama Lacona’s,” “Riccelli’s,” “Lemmo’s” and “Christopher’s” joined the scene the next decade.

All of the restaurants were owned by sons or daughters of Calabria, the southern-most province on the Italian mainland, and all featured tomato and olive oil sauces, homemade pasta and sausage. To this day, locally owned Italian restaurants in Des Moines argue whether pasta should be made with whole eggs, yolks or whites. You can usually tell a real Calabrese family restaurant from imitators by ordering chicken livers and gizzards. Some local places prepare them four different ways. Similarly, steak de Burgo is an Italian Des Moines original, though its origin is disputed. Its recipes differ wildly, but every Italian place in Des Moines offers one. The oldest we have found was from “Vic’s Tally Ho” in 1939, and that recipe is still used today at “Sam & Gabe’s.”

Tumea & Sons, 1501 S.E. First St.

Joe Tumea was Sicilian-born, and his late wife, Lucretia Berardi, was Calabrese. This menu is a synthesis of two families’ recipes. The “Sicilian spaghetti” is a baked specialty, and the “brashiole,” a meat roll, is also Sicilian. The garlic butter, marsala reductions and picatas are family heirlooms. This is one of the few places left in Des Moines that still serves Calabrese “pastachena,” cannoli and guandi.


Noah’s Ark, 2400 Ingersoll Ave.


Noah Lacona opened a restaurant on Court Avenue in 1946 and one year later opened another at the present site on Ingersoll.

Noah’s likely served the first pizza in an Iowa restaurant.

Noah’s likely served the first pizza in an Iowa restaurant.

He served what was probably the first pizza in Iowa, in 1947. Noah’s recipes came from his mother, Teresa, and none have changed in more than 55 years, though the menu has added many new dishes.

Baratta’s, 2320 S. Union St.

Calabria-born Charlie “Cat” Baratta and his brother, Mike, operated an Italian grocery store on the south side through the 1940s and ’50s that was converted to a restaurant in 1967. Joe Gatto began working for Cat when he was 14. In 1993, along with southside friends Lisa and Curt Krueger, he bought the place. Mike’s pepper steak and Cat’s spaghetti are original dishes.


Chuck’s, 3610 Sixth St.

Chuck Bisignano opened this place in 1956 serving homemade, scratch dishes the old fashioned way. His daughter Linda ran it for decades. Not much has changed. The pizza oven is original.

Chuck’s still uses its original pizza oven.

Chuck’s still uses its original pizza oven.

Chuck’s famous Italian dressing marinates whole garlic cloves for more than two months.


Tursi’s Latin King, 2200 Hubbell Ave.

Jimmy Pigneri opened this restaurant with wife, Rose, in 1947. Southsider Bob Tursi bought it in 1983, and with wife Amy keeps faith with Calabrese and New York City traditions. Fried potatoes are still made like they were in the 1940s, with sliced fresh potatoes in covered pans. Its chicken spiedini is legendary.

Christopher’s, 2816 Beaver Ave.

Late founder Joe Giudecessi’s dad came from D’alla Vecchio in Calabria, but Christopher’s mixes regional styles. Lasagna is Calabrese, but chicken Parmesan has always been made in northern Italian style. Son Ron and daughter Rene operate the popular Beaverdale restaurant today. They are one of the only restaurants left in town that pan-fries chicken.


Sam & Gabe’s, 7700 University, Clive

Original owners Jerry and Julia Talerico’s father Vic owned Vic’s Tally Ho, and came from Calabria. His wife Sophia was from Emilia-Romagna. Sam & Gabe’s include family recipes from both parents. Its steak de Burgo, which half of Des Moines believes was invented by Vic, is made southern-style with olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs. Most pasta is offered with a choice of cream sauce or marinara. Ownership has changed, but not much else.


Riccelli’s, 3803 Indianola Road

A grandson of Calabria, Pete Riccelli learned the business at Caesar’s on Fleur and Luigi’s on Forest (no relation to the superb new Luigi’s, which is owned by northern Italians). His ravioli and cavatelli are homemade as are all the Calabrese sauces.


Mama Lacona’s, 3825 121st St., Urbandale

“Mama” was Teresa Lacona, whose Calabrese recipes have been the backbone of several Des Moines restaurants. Her son Chuck and his wife Mary opened this restaurant in Beaverdale in1957, and their heirloom pizza stone is still the focus of the kitchen. Bambino’s and Gusto have direct family connections.

Scornovacca’s, 1930 S.E. 14th St.

Homemade sausage, meatballs and sauces, and an Old Country bocce ball court characterize Mike Vacco’s restaurant. Many tout the pizza as best in town.


Orlondo’s on Park, 4337 Park Ave.

Pat Renda’s (directly related to Aunt Jenny) restaurant uses the café’s own garden produce, and his smokehouse meats are available all year. Orlondo’s introduced whole wheat pizza to Des Moines. Sausage and meatballs are homemade.


Bordenaro’s, 6108, S.W. Ninth St.

Bordenaro’s high temperature, stone ovens have been turning out the spiciest thin crust pizza in town since 1977. Sausage and meatballs are homemade. Basil and oregano are fresh.


Centro, 10th & Locust Ave.

Owner-chef George Formaro’s mother, Gina, came from Palermo, and his father, George, from Calabria. George learned to make artisan bread in Sicily, but his pizza is inspired by Little Italy in New York. Coal-burning ovens maintain super high temperatures that cook pizzas in just three minutes. The roasted garlic vinaigrette salad dressing is his mom’s Sicilian recipe.


Bianchi’s Hilltop, 2820 Hubbell Ave.

Originally opened by the Tollari family, the restaurant changed ownership in 2006, but the old Calabrese favorites — including chicken livers — remain. The thin crust pizza pies have devotees.

  • • •

Beyond the old Italian cafés, other heirloom restaurants could be included in the other great traditions of Des Moines — the steakhouse and diner.


Chicago Speakeasy, 1320 Euclid Ave.

This Highland Park gem features a 50-item salad bar cooled by a mound of ice.

Most traditional Des Moines steakhouses specialize in slow-cooked prime rib, like this cut at Chicago Speakeasy.

Most traditional Des Moines steakhouses specialize in slow-cooked
prime rib, like this cut at Chicago Speakeasy.

That’s so old fashioned that this is the only one left in town. Another bargain for the genre, it was voted the Ultimate Place for Steak by Cityview readers.

Iowa Beef Steakhouse, 1201 E. Euclid Ave.

This place introduced Des Moines to the grill-your-own, charcoal pit steak style in 1982. Last year, Joe and Will Kellogg bought the place from original owner Henry Schneider. Both were former employees.

Trostel’s Greenbriar, 5810 Merle Hay Road, Johnston

Founded by the late Paul Trostel, this gem of fine dining is now operated by his son Troy. Troy’s gunpowder steak rub is so popular that it’s sold by the pound. All steaks can be ordered with any classic French sauce. Some servers have been with the restaurant for many decades.


Jesse’s Embers, 3301 Ingersoll Ave.

Now owned by Marty Scarpino and Deena Edelstein, this little legend has been packed regularly since 1963.

Iowa Beef Steakhouse is now open for lunch with open pit grilled burgers and steaks.

Iowa Beef Steakhouse is now open for lunch with open pit grilled
burgers and steaks.

Scarpino is an old Italian American pro who believes in being in his restaurant and taking care of customers every day.


Maxie’s, 1311 Grand Ave., West Des Moines

Now in its 50th year, this old fashioned steakhouse specializes in good service and heirloom ice cream cocktails. A bargain in its genre, it can be packed before 5:30 p.m.


Skip’s, 4000 Fleur Drive

Established in 1981 by the late Skip Bachman, this is another bargain-priced café where steaks star. So do coffee cocktails.


Crouse Café, 115 E. Salem, Indianola

This scratch-made family gem is closing in on 75 years of service, with three meals a day. Rhonda’s homemade pies are famous, the fried chicken superb,

Crouse Cafe has been serving scratch-made pies like this for nearly 75 years.

Crouse Cafe has been serving scratch-made pies like this for nearly 75 years.

and the breakfasts are humongous. RELISH






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