Choice Awards – Cityview’s Hall of Iowa Culinary Excellence4/8/2015
Keepers of tradition honored with Cityview’s Hall of Iowa Culinary Excellence awards
The idea for this story originated a decade ago and was inspired by Japan’s Living National Treasures. That program honors “preservers of important intangible cultural properties.” In the years immediately after World War II, anxiety arose in Japan that unique cultural traditions — noh, kabuki, origami, kumi, teapot ceramics, etc. — might be swamped by western culture. Honoring revered masters of these arts has helped them endure.
Our intention was to do something similar for Iowa’s unique food pioneers. That evolved into a hall of fame for food institutions that give our city and state a unique quality. Cityview’s Hall of Iowa Culinary Excellence (CHOICE) awards begins this year at a time when locals rue the passing of two of the most memorable food icons in Iowa history. The Younkers Tea Room was lost in a fire one year ago, and Dahl’s stores converted into Price Choppers last weekend.
For this charter edition of the awards, we focused on venerability. The Japanese word “sabi” refers to a kind of beauty attained by aging, when an object’s elegance is revealed by a changing patina. The word is most often applied to tea pots whose glaze have been altered by decades, and even centuries, of having tea intentionally poured over the top to drip down over the pot. In that spirit, our charter members have all been serving Iowa for at least half a century.
Since the first Italian food store, Candy Bunoni, opened in 1906, Italian food has been a steadily increasing tourist attraction in Des Moines. In 1915, ads for Italian restaurants began appearing in Des Moines newspapers. By the 1940s, Willy Pedro’s, Jennie Renda’s Aunt Jennie’s, Mr. V’s, The Latin King and Joe Amino’s Wimpy’s were all drawing visitors. During World War II, Alphonsus Bisignano’s Babe’s became a cultural phenomenon, especially appealing to soldiers and WACs stationed here. In the 1950s, Johnny & Kay’s, Vic’s Tally Ho, Caesar’s, Luigi’s, The Latin King, Noah’s, and Babe’s dominated fine dining in the city. Gary Fatino’s, Rocky’s White Shutter Inn, Mama Lacona’s, Riccelli’s, Lemmo’s, Chuck’s, and Christopher’s soon joined that scene.
All were owned by sons of Calabria, the southernmost province on the Italian mainland. They featured tomato and olive oil sauces, homemade pasta and sausage. To this day, many locally owned Italian restaurants in Des Moines make at least one of their pasta from scratch, arguing whether to use whole eggs, yolks or whites. Chicken livers and gizzards often distinguish a traditional Calabrese family restaurant from other Italian places. Homemade cavatelli is another old Calabrese favorite. Similarly, steak de Burgo is an Italian Des Moines original, though its origin is disputed. Its recipes differ wildly but almost every Italian place in Des Moines offers one.
Three charter CHOICE members are touchstones to this glorious past. They all date themselves from 1947 — the earthshaking year when India was born, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and Congress overrode Harry Truman’s veto to establish the Taft-Hartley Act.
“Mom & Pop” in every sense, Mr. V’s began serving the south side when current owner Joe Vivone was in elementary school. Joe and his wife Eleanor run the place now more like a community center than a restaurant. They keep prices low — ridiculously low — because they know they are the only restaurant that some of their customers can afford. The café has two rooms, one with tablecloths, a fireplace, art on the walls and Venetian glass on the mantles. Many customers prefer a less formal room highlighted with a full-sized bar and a Budweiser sign, even though Mr. V’s serves no alcohol. That room is decorated with an old-fashioned gumball machine, family photos and a large-screen TV. Guests might bring their own wine or beer, and anyone who asks if there’s a corkage fee is answered with a look of consternation.
“I know a lot of pensioners and fixed income senior citizens who depend upon Mr. V’s in the same way they depend on their local parish,” explained Café di Scala owner Tony Lemmo, one of Mr. V’s fans.
Noah Lacona began selling prepared food in the Rock Island Depot downtown in the late 1940s. In the 1950s and ’60s, banks didn’t loan money to build restaurants, so the great Italian restaurateurs of Des Moines expanded one wall at a time — from a tiny kitchen to a two storied, multi-roomed food palace in the case of Noah’s Ark. The first Calabrese restaurant on the west side, this restaurant took off after Noah designed a gas oven that simulated the wood-burning ovens of his native land and a pie-making machine that duplicated the Neapolitan crusts that American soldiers learned to love in World War II.
All of Noah’s original recipes come from his mother, Teresa, who managed his kitchen in its early years. None have changed in seven decades, though the menu has added many new dishes as it expanded four times and survived two fires. Homemade mozzarella, yeast rolls and steaks all have fans, but pizza are the focus here — thin, crisp-crusted pies include more mozzarella and less tomato than typical.
Jimmy Pigneri came to Des Moines from Calabria, but first spent some time in New York City’s Latin Quarter. He worked in restaurants there and brought the Little Italy influences to Des Moines where he and wife Rose opened The Latin King in 1947.
In 1983 the Pigneris sold to Bob Tursi, the American-born son of Calabrese parents. While twice remodeling the original building, Bob and his wife Amy kept faith with the southern Italian and Little Italy flavors. Tomato sauces are made with concentrated, homemade pastes that evoke another time. Ravioli, manicotti and potato gnocchi are made fresh in the kitchen. Chicken spiedini is a signature dish, and marinated breast chunks are breaded and broiled and served with a choice of homemade sauces. In Calabrese fashion, there are multiple preparations for chicken livers or gizzards. The steak de burgo recipe is from Johnny & Kay’s, which half of Des Moines believes to be the original. Pan-fried potatoes have a cult following. The excellent tiramisu and cannoli are prepared in the kitchen.
Louis Graziano opened a grocery business in 1912 while his brother Frank remained a railway worker until the store got on its feet. From San Morello in Calabria, Graziano Brothers endeared itself to a generation of the south side community by extending credit to all in need during the Great Depression. They expanded the business into a wholesale distribution company in 1948, which enhanced the reputation of their Italian sausage, link, bulk and patties.
Today, their sausage is nationally famous, yet only a small percentage of its fans realize the original market is still operating and stocking the city’s best inventory of all things Italian. Cheeses and charcuterie are both local and imported. Exotic dried mushrooms, rare white balsamic vinegars, olive oils, tomato products, wines and local Italian breads make Graziano Brothers a unique market.
Crouse Café in downtown Indianola has been serving classic diner food for 70 years. The family café specializes in breakfast buffets, scratch-made potato dishes, heavy gravies, hand-breaded pork tenderloin, fried chicken (Sundays) and small-town friendliness. Yet they are most famous for Rhonda’s scratch pies, especially a cherry pie.
It’s also home to perhaps the most eclectic customer profile in Iowa — a haunt for worldly opera performers, college professors, farmers and city folk who make the drive from Des Moines several times a month.
When George Karaidos Jr. opened George the Chili King in 1953, it was the new store in the family business. His father, who emigrated from Greece at 15, had opened a similar restaurant downtown in 1920. After winning a newspaper chili competition, he renamed it George the Chili King. In 1947, Karaidos’ brother, Jim, opened a new store at Harding (now MLK) and Euclid. George Jr. opened the current store at age 19 in 1952. Not much has changed. The classic diner counter is the last of its kind in Des Moines. So is the carhop service, which bustles on classic car nights. And so, of course, is the secrecy of the famous chili recipe.
Founded in 1922, B & B Grocery Meat & Deli is the heart and soul of Sevastapol, a formerly independent town founded just south of East Village during the Civil War. Part community center and part political hangout, this place was originally home to the area’s Russian population before being annexed by Des Moines in the 1920s. Its walls are covered with historic newspapers that go back to the end of WWI. The meat market still cuts to order from whole carcasses.
Nine Brooks family members currently staff a place that mixes an old-fashioned butcher shop with a deli that is unique in several ways. First of all, it includes a grill and a deep fryer. So, besides its signature submarine-type sandwiches, one can order burgers in sizes ranging up to one-and-a-third pounds of beef. Want some fried oysters with your corned beef sandwich? Just add 75 cents per mollusk. Want headcheese or souse on your sub? Take your choice of several kinds. Need a pig’s head or a butt with the skin left on? No problem.
B & B makes pork tenderloins in the literal sense. Most places make these out of tenderized portions of the entire loin, including the less desirable blade and sirloin ends. “We only use real tenderloin from pure pork,” John Brooks explained of a sandwich that was voted “Des Moines‘ Ultimate Sandwich” in a Cityview competition six years ago.
No other small town in Iowa has so many things associated with its name as Pella: windows, tulips, Dutch letter pastries, heavy duty machinery like trenchers and harvesters, and a unique charcuterie treasure that has been in continuous production since the 1860s. Pella bologna can probably blame the second word in its name for its relative obscurity outside Iowa. It’s not American bologna, which is required to be ground to a uniform consistency with no visible traces of lard. It’s not Bologna’s bologna either, which is actually mortadella. Pella bologna is really one of the great American salami. It’s never made with fillers, chickens, turkeys, pork or by-products. It is made primarily with beef hearts and cheeks.
“That’s where the flavor comes from. I tried making it once without them, and it didn’t have any flavor,” claims Bruce Reitveld, a butcher at In’t Veld’s Meat Market for more than 20 years.
Reitveld says traditions are vanishing, even in Pella. “When I was a little kid, there were six places in town making Pella bologna. It was even being made here in grocery stores. Now there’s just us.”
In’t Veld’s employs an all-wood-burning smokehouse. Their bolognas are mixed with secret seasoning recipes, stuffed into horseshoe-shaped rings, cured and hung several hours in their smokehouses. The store is a full service butcher shop with a large, two-story café.
During WWII, The Nazis controlled the world’s Roquefort cheese market. Iowa State scientists Clarence Lane and Bernard W. Hammer created a method of making blue cheese with homogenized cow’s milk. At the time, E.H. Maytag, son of the appliance company founder, had assembled a herd of prize-winning dairy Holsteins. His son, Fred II, heard about the ISU discovery and recreated it with his father’s famous cows and company-owned caves outside Newton.
Today, the prize-winning herd is gone, but most else is the same with Maytag blue cheese. Milk is purchased from Iowa farms, and each wheel is made by hand in small batches before being aged in the caves.
When Iver Erickson began AE Dairy in 1930, there were 150 licensed dairies in Des Moines. They are the lone survivor because they made dairy products that appealed to the city. Eric Ziebolt is Iowa’s most renowned chef. He was executive chef at The French Laundry in California, perhaps America’s most famous restaurant, and won a James Beard Award at his City Zen, in Washington, D.C. He imports shipments of AE sour cream dips and has even created deconstructed versions of them in his café.
All AE milk comes from Iowa family farms and is tested and retested for purity. All is also free from antibiotics, pesticides and added growth hormones.
The state’s most popular food event is the Iowa State Fair. Two aspects of the 12-day event suggest why it’s hall of fame material. The campground hosts the greatest tailgate party in the Midwest. Campers line up overnight, a mile long, waiting for the gates to open. These aren’t kids buying concert tickets as much as their grandparents. They gain no advantage by lining up early either, all the choice campsites are reserved years — often decades — in advance. These campers come early because there is nowhere else they’d rather be.
Families show up 40 strong, five generations apart. Some have members who began attending in horse-drawn wagons. One family campsite can employ 10 trailers, three balanced tables, a food tent that seats 50, a deep freezer, three refrigerators, a double sink with a hot water heater, two ovens, a four-burner gas stove, five butchered hogs, one butchered cow, a half-ton of harvested vegetables and a flat-top grill big enough to cook 30 pounds of bacon at a time.
Another aspect of the fair’s grandeur is its food division, which claims to be the world’s largest cooking competition. Last year there were 226 divisions with 883 classes and 10,500 entries. Cooks test their prowess against the best in the state. Categories like cinnamon rolls and pie making can make reputations that last decades. CV
Choice Awards Charter Members
Mr. V’s (206 Indianola Ave., 243-9964)
Noah’s Ark (2400 Ingersoll, 288-2246)
Tursi’s Latin King (2200 Hubbell Ave., 266-4466)
Graziano Brothers (1601 S. Union St., 244-7103)
George the Chili King (5722 Hickman Road, 277-9433)
Crouse Café (115 E Salem Ave., Indianola, 961-3362)
In’t Veld’s Meat Market’s Pella bologna (820 Main St., Pella, 641-628-3440)
Maytag Cheese (800-247-2458)
The Iowa State Fair
Anderson-Erickson (2420 E. University Ave., 265-2521)
B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli (2001 SE 6th St, 243-7607)