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There’s a wide-open field in the 2008 presidential caucus derby, but the celebrity-sighting sweepstakes is looking like a two horse race with Centro giving 801 Steak & Chop House its toughest challenge ever. Already John Kerry, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, the Dixie Chicks and Elizabeth Edwards have supped at George Formaro’s restaurant in the Temple for the Performing Arts, a place well designed for such “populist” Democrats. With a single, wide-open dining room and ceiling high windows, Centro’s the easiest place in town to be seen while dining.

It also has the kind of comeback story that underdogs love. Were it not for a grass- roots rebellion, the entire Temple might now be rubble. Mayor’s office insiders were publicly lobbying for that outcome when Harry Bookey put together a restoration plan that included a wish, a prayer and six dozen funding sources. Protestors helped him salvage an architectural diamond next door to the new rhinestone library that was demanding its sacrifice. Fittingly, Bookey recruited a grassroots restaurateur to anchor the building.

Like the Temple itself, George Formaro’s culinary foundation rests in the soil of Des Moines. He’s a mother-taught original who completed his culinary education by tracing his ethnic roots from Sicily through New York City and the Italian ghost towns of Iowa. First he opened an artisan bread company around a Sicilian wood-fired brick oven that he built on South Union Street. Then he started a deli under a downtown parking ramp. At the Temple, he built his kitchen around a coal-fired oven from his favorite pizzeria in New York City. Pizzas cook in just three minutes and are best appreciated simply, without any California baggage. Sausage, peppers, spinach, anchovies and garlic can be added, but not smoked salmon or baby bok choy. Formaro’s favorite pizza is a “Margherita well done” — just cheese, tomatoes, fresh basil and charred edges. Ours, too.

Lunch also offered good pasta and salads, but sandwiches featuring George’s ciabatta and focaccia called my name. The Friday special pork tenderloin gave Iowa’s iconic sandwich a Niman Pork (free range) treatment, with a crunchier than usual breading. A Tuscan panini delivered smoky chicken with truffled mac & cheese on the side. Arancino, another house specialty, brought golden breaded, fried risotto croquettes stuffed with salami-mozzarella, ham and pepperoni.

Dinner featured a wood-grilled, bone-in, herb crusted Niman pork chop, gorgeously spiked with a chianti demiglace and served with a many textured cheese polenta and a roasted pepper relish. Formaro’s beef tenderloin was NOT called “de burgo,” though it was a purer version of Des Moines’ famous dish than most that use the name — herb crusted and served with garlic-shallot butter. Centro veal is humanely raised and I do not know of another place in Iowa that spends the extra money for that.

A special “braccioli,” which Formaro says will probably be on the menu soon, soared. George cut pork shoulder into a rectangle that was coated with panko, fresh herbs, orange zest and garlic — then rolled & tied, browned & braised and served with a sauce of the braising liquid. This dish is a great invention of Calabria and could become a signature of Calebrese-influenced Des Moines. Portions were consistently large and pairings were simple — mostly garlic mashed potatoes and pasta alfredo. Handmade cavatelli and “penne with prosciutto and wood fired chicken” were the best pasta. “Sicilian street chicken,” topped with oranges and fresh fennel in arugula, had more range of accents than other wood-grilled chicken dishes in town.

Pastry chef Laura Martin’s dessert list was less Italian than the main menu, but several excellent tarts and the compulsory flourless chocolate torte compensated. A “tiramasu martini” and 17 single malt Scotches highlighted the bar menu. With 17 wines by the glass beginning at $5, and bottles priced $21-$300, Centro is a reasonable splurge for populists.

Side dish

George Formaro is consulting on the menu for Tommy Farrell‘s Italian Ristorante. Farrell says he wants to bring neglected Chicago-Italian influences to town, particularly in the style of sausages and roast beef. CV

By Jim Duncan
Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)

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