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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Torroco! Italian Grill
4810 NW 86th St., Urbandale, 334-3085
Mon. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.


Andrew Meek is having a huge spring. In April, his Sage restaurant became one of the just three nominees for the Golden Clog Award as America’s “best restaurant not located in a culinary center.” Two weeks later, he opened his second café, changing his title from chef-owner to restaurateur. Torocco, in a former Jesse’s Embers steakhouse, is considerably larger than Sage, so Meek is now playing the high anxiety game of expanding a brand without devaluing it.

The new 135-seat place (plus 30 more in a private room) opened to big buzz. Meek recruited some top local talent: bartender of the year Harold Otis moved over from The Latin King; chef de cuisine Matt Pearson came from Dish. Still Torocco, named for a type of blood orange, is not Sage. It’s considerably less expensive. Lunch prices range from $7 to $19. Dinner entrees range between $14 and $24. There’s even a kids’ menu priced from $4 to $7. The wine list stays under $50 a bottle with 10 available by the glass for under $8.

The remodeling job looks like million bucks. The old bar was removed and divided between a private room and part of the main dining room. The walls and ceiling were strikingly lit and recessed in red and black. New landscaping, faux marble floors and a new portico bar lend an Italian look. A new street-front patio should be up and running by Memorial Day.

A fried seafood appetizer included two each of frog legs, oysters and shrimp plus a marinara dip and a good aioli. A house antipasto included some mortadello, ham, plus good soft cheese and hard cheeses, asparagus spears and artichoke hearts. A Tuscan white bean chowder with homemade sausage bested a confused seafood minestrone. A simple salad delivered the freshest greens I had tasted in six months and treated them with a full-flavored (Sicilian style) olive oil and vinegar dressing.

Some entrees came with Sage style. Chilean sea bass was pan roasted and served on a chickpea puree with truffle oil. Pan-fried walleye was served with eggplant puree and roasted tomato broth. A New York strip was given old-fashioned Italian Des Moines treatment with gorgonzola sauce and mushrooms. Pasta dishes are the rage here, so much so that baked ziti, which requires hours of preparation, was selling out by 6:30 in the evening. That dish and lasagna were served stacked high with marinara, meat and cheeses. Meek took more liberties with other pasta dishes. His Bolognese eschewed the traditional home made tagliatelle for the locally popular penne. It delivered a good braised combo of veal and pork with carrots, celery and onions — but no tomato paste at all. His linguine carbonara used a superb Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and substituted homemade pancetta (pork belly bacon) for the hard-to-explain guanciale (pork jowl bacon). It added the American touch of a sherry cream sauce.

Two Meek signatures visited from Sage as $4 side dishes. His Brussels sprouts, halved and sautéed in caramelized sugar have converted many people who had never previously liked that vegetable. Similarly, his brown butter polenta has turned hundreds of Iowans on to cornmeal. A $7 meatball pannini, with Asiago cheese and banana peppers (lunch only), is a winner. It‘s also Meek’s personal favorite sandwich.

Desserts were uneven during the opening weeks. Three slices of roasted banana accompanied two cream-stuffed cannoli in a good one. Crostini di susina didn’t work — one little piece of toast disappeared in a soup of peach and plum sauce that needed contrasting textures. Meek’s homemade ricotta cheese ice cream, with balsamic compote and fresh strawberries, is the best bet for now.

Side dishes

Trostel’s Dish replaced their only entrée, prime rib, with a very short menu of steaks and chops… Nana’s completed a move to a larger building one block north at 3916 N.W. Urbandale Drive.… Iowa Culinary Institute (ICI) will serve 200 different bottles of medal winning wine at a fundraising dinner May 31 to help ICI students travel abroad; $30, reservations required, 964-6229. CV

Food Dude Reviews 2008 2007 Reviews
Splash Raw Oyster Bar (1-3-08) Flavors of India(1-10-08)
Uncle Wendell's (1-17-08) Jesse's Embers (1-24-08)
Taste of Elegance (1-31-08) Old Country Buffet (2-7-08)
Baker’s Food & Fuel (2-14-08) Coffee (2-21-08)
Cool Basil (2-28-08) Sports Bars (3-06-08)
Daddy O’s Bodacious Foods (3-13-08) Maverick Grill (3-20-08)
Phat Chef’s (4-03-08) Shotz & Grill Cordoba (4-10-08)
Radish (4-17-08) Alba (4-24-08)
Billy Mack's (5-01-08) Jethro’s BBQ & Sports Bar (5-15-08)
Viva los Forasteros (5-22-08)  

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