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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Chuck's, 3610 Sixth Avenue, 244-4104
Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 11 p.m.?
Friday and Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to midnight.

Chuck’s — king of the tavern style pizza

As I walked into Chuck’s, I overheard heard owner Linda Bisignano saying goodbye to a family of diners.

“How was everything?”

“Wonderful, as usual. Worth driving 150 miles.”

Like other Italian family restaurants in town, Chuck’s has long appealed to long-distance drivers. In 1980, the Des Moines Civic Center commissioned a survey at its first sold-out event. Because a high percentage of ticket buyers came from out of town, the audience was asked what about Des Moines was worth an hour’s drive. Multiple-choice answers included typical civic icons like the state fair and planned attractions like Broadway road shows. The top answer though was a write-in — Italian restaurants.

Much has changed in 30 years. Out-of-town visitors are more likely now to come for entertainment and stay for dinner rather than the other way around. Some things have not changed. Despite the exponential growth of corporate chain restaurants, Des Moines’ traditional Italian cafés have remained distinctive enough to pull folks in from miles away.

Chuck’s is the most nostalgic of our heirloom cafés. It’s 10 years older than Gino’s and more anchored than Sam & Gabe’s, Noah’s, Baratta’s, Christopher’s and The Latin King — all remodeled, upgraded or expanded, several times. At Chuck’s, a couple vintage beer signs could transform the main room into a movie set for that cataclysmic day in 1963 when Iowa legalized liquor by the drink. On a recent visit, customers at Chuck’s bar were comparing that very day to one that recently ended a ban on gay marriages in Iowa. “World didn’t end then either, despite a lot of predictions to the contrary.”

Forty years before George Formaro brought “New York style” pizza downtown to Centro, Chuck’s introduced Des Moines to the blistered edges and fresh flavors of high temperature pies. Spied recently with a Chuck’s pizza, Formaro called it Des Moines’ most authentic tavern-style pie.

“A true tavern pizza has a thin crispy crust that is stiff enough to hold Margarita toppings without drooping. A New York-style pizza, by contrast, can be folded in half and eaten like a sandwich,” he explained. Chuck’s pizzas are still baked in the original oven. Homemade sausage, meatballs and pizza sauce, fresh herbs and vegetables plus Italian cheeses also keep people driving long distance.

So do little acts of hospitality. Like an old-fashioned restaurateur, Bisignano visited every table on busy nights. Baskets of homemade breads included soft Italian and finger-sized cracker loaves. Butter was served in ramekins, not on annoying little paper patties. Generous antipasto included capacola, salami, pepperoni, two cheeses, two kinds of pickled peppers and three house condiments: one made of horseradish, mustard and cheddar; a tapanade that included fresh garlic and Provolone and a sweet pickle relish that included olive oil and peppers. Even the lettuces lining the bottom of the antipasto composed a good salad.

Fry work here was also old-fashioned. Chicken, chicken livers, pork tenderloins, onion rings and veal were all dipped in egg wash and flour and then pan-fried. Ravioli and cavatelli were homemade from scratch. Marinara was thicker than average. Veal scaloppini was ribbon cut and folded into red gravy. Chuck’s steaks were all a “premium Angus” designation that assures at least USDA choice grade. A tenderloin de Burgo (the most expensive full dinner on the menu at $26.50) used Des Moines’ original recipe of olive oil, fresh herbs and garlic. Desserts, including exquisite balsamic truffles, were homemade. Thursday night’s $11 prime rib special, with whole cloves of garlic inserted in the fat, was a major draw — from many miles away.

Side Dishes
Phat Chefs spring menu added house cured duck prosciutto, Oregon white truffle foie gras pate, smoked pork rillettes and pickled quail eggs... Casa di Vino hosts a "Spring whites" tasting April 21, from 5 to 7 p.m. CV
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