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By Jim Duncan Reviews

5990 University Ave., West Des Moines, 221-9900
Mon. - Thurs. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. , Fri. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.

Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano

Headquartered in Bloomington, Ill., Biaggi’s has 21 outlets compared to 72 for Bravo/Brio and 675 for Olive Garden. Biaggi’s has slowed down expansion, opening just four new stores in the last four years, following 17 launches the previous four. It’s usually a good sign for diners when a company begins refocusing on its base. In Biaggi’s case that includes the six-year-old West Des Moines restaurant, a handsome place with dark wood, tall ceilings, a huge built-in wine cabinet, fieldstone walls and fireplaces, plus a marvelous private wine room for parties. Best of all, it looks like an urban restaurant, not a theme park ride through faux ruins.

Like most big restaurants, Biaggi’s must appeal to many types of diners. Yet its staff seems to always seat people with the care of a wedding planner — all the hyperactive children in one area and the hand holding couples in another. My servers were reasonably acquainted with the recipes and when mistakes were made, the head chef himself came out to make sure they were fixed satisfactorily. That has never happened to me in another Italian chain restaurant. Unlike some chains, Biaggi’s is unafraid to recreate its menu. I visited recently with out of town Iowans who had been dreaming for months about Biaggi’s grilled calamari, lamb and veal chops. Alas, none of those dishes were on the current, magazine-sized menu. The couple was appeased though with a three-course summer special that cost just $15. Other aspects of service have slipped. During one recent visit, I was seated in a window booth with Venetian blinds so dirty that I moved my food as far away as possible. On two occasions, servers failed to tell me about the summer special, or about daily specials.

The food was still more authentically Italian than that coming from Olive Garden’s heavily marketed “Tuscan culinary academy.” Breadbaskets included onion foccacia, crusty ciabatta and sweet-nutty whole grain. Pizza was thin crusted and perfectly crisped. Bruschetta came with fresh tomatoes and herbs with balsamic on the side. Carpaccio was divinely textured and served with superb caper berries. Homemade Caesar salad had a strange, runny dressing. Fried calamari rings were a sad reminder of their former grilled version.

Crab and lobster al forno, a Biaggi’s signature dish, included artichoke hearts, spinach and restrained use of marscapone. Overall, a light hand with cheese distinguishes Biaggi’s from other “Italian” chains. Even the three-cheese lasagna avoided the globs of melted cheese that characterize most chains’ recipes. A Bolognese included the subtlest Parmesan-Reggiano treatment, in a red cream sauce with two kinds of pork. Gorgonzola sauced pork chops al forno, another signature dish, didn’t receive the subtle cheese memo. Excellent squash ravioli were served in brown butter sage sauce, with toasted walnuts. Scallop pasta special disappointed, offering no visible scallops in its blended sauce. An iron-seared sea bass was marvelously moist and well complemented by roasted red pepper cream and mashed potatoes. A side of spinach desperately needed an acid kick.

Desserts servings were huge. Whipped toppings and ice cream overwhelmed both a heavy, stuffed crepe (bananas foster) and a rather stale cake (banana paradiso). Biaggi’s offers a mostly Italian and American wine list, priced $20-$45. Half pans of restaurant specials (pork chops al forno, rigatoni Bolognese, etc.) can serve a dozen people, for $55-$80. My carryout service was prompt and impressively packaged.

Bottom line: More of a restaurant than a marketing gimmick, Biaggi’s is the best Italian restaurant chain operating in Greater Des Moines.

Side dishes
Cheesecake Factory was the top restaurant chain in America last year in per-store sales. Their average sales were double those of its closest competitor. … Des Moines’ Raw Food Meet Ups recommence Sept. 8 at East Village Books. Contact Summer Hines, 279-2922. CV

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