By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Pizza is the answer, with Gusto
While Republicans and Democrats argue whether tax hikes or spending cuts can best stimulate the economy, true Panglossians believe pizza is the answer. Their argument: the U.S. trade deficit to China rose last year to a record $273 billion, not counting interest on the Treasury’s $757 billion debt to the Chinese. It would be much worse without pizza. Yum Brands opened 500 new Pizza Hut and KFC stores in China last year, yet same-store sales rose 6 percent.
That logic has spread to Des Moines. In a very tough market, three successful young restaurateurs all opened pizza joints recently near their existing restaurants. The first two introduced something different to our culture. Steve Logsdon (Lucca) brought exquisite steam injected pies to Bagni di Lucca, then Carly Groben (Proof) found a way to make deep dish, proofed pies crisp and crunchy at Flour. Finally Tony Lemmo (Café di Scala) joined this pizza rush with Gusto, emphasizing more traditional pie pursuits.
Lemmo’s second pizzeria after closing Frank’s last year, Gusto maintains Frank’s ambiance from the golden age of Italian-American culture when DiMaggio, Sinatra and Valentino became the biggest stars in America. Artwork, music, old movies, black pizza boxes and “fedora nights” swagger nostalgically at Gusto. Pizza names now reach back to the Renaissance (Mona Lisa, Francesco) and the 19th century (Il Figaro), or forward to more modern Italian-American cultural icons (The Stallion, Soprano). An L-shaped room offers far more seating than Frank’s had, but the self-serve system remains.
Lemmo began his career with a stall in the Metro Market and his signature sandwiches from those days reprise their rolls at Gusto. Frank’s special ($8 with a side) provided fried eggplant on garlic focaccia with pesto, provolone and vegetables. A meatball sandwich ($8) was topped with giardinere, mozzarella and lots of dark marinara. Sausage sandwiches used Graziano’s product ($8). A pesto chicken salad sandwich ($9) included roasted peppers and walnuts on focaccia. In all cases, bread was fresh and perfectly toasted when appropriate. Salads delivered fresh mesclun, and five homemade Italian style dressings — garlic-fennel vinaigrette stood out.
Appetizers included superb homemade soups — Italian meatball in vegetable stock from chef Sam Auen and Lemmo’s traditional tomato basil starred. Pizza chips came with a creative dip of ricotta and roasted red peppers. Bread sticks were served with marinara.
Pizza ($9-16) is the focus here, but pizza ovens were temperamental, particularly when doors opened too often. On busy visits soon after the opening, crusts lacked the crispness they had on visits during slow hours, or at Frank’s. When that problem is adjusted, this should become a favorite pizzeria for old-fashioned crust and new fangled topping lovers alike. Lemmo has sworn he will never serve a “de Burgo” dish at Café di Scala, but he’s making “de Burgo” pies at Gusto that use shrimp and mozzarella with the iconic sauce of Des Moines. Another pie brought pears, La Quercia prosciutto, dried figs and blue cheese with fresh greens. Yet another mixed roast chicken with mozzarella and a Thai style peanut-cilantro-carrot-sprouts topping. The most inventive pie, tentatively titled “Harry Caray” honors that Italian-American baseball announcer with Niman Ranch brats and brown mustard sauce, plus chives, onions, parsley and a mix of cream cheese and goat cheese. Another signature will feature rillettes, arugula, truffle oil and Tallegio, a legendary smear-ripened cheese.
Lou Ann Lemmo’s lasagna was served in a marvelously different marinara that had been relatively undercooked and perfectly complemented the dish’s several cheeses. Cannoli came in both chocolate and classic flavors. Daily chocolate specials were also offered. Two happy hours and sustainable suppliers like Pickett Fences played to broader audiences, just like Rudy, Joe and Frank did.
Bagni di Lucca is now open for breakfast on Saturdays. CV