Cityview’s Ultimate Pizza Challenge8/26/2015
Call it Mussolini’s Revenge. The Italian dictator didn’t fare too well in World War II, but since then, pizza has conquered America. Before that war, pizza was either obscure or unknown in Des Moines. Today it’s ubiquitous, being made from scratch in convenience stores like Casey’s and QT, in neighborhood bars like County Line Café and G Migg’s, in polished wood and marble palaces like Mama Lacona’s and in mobile wood burning ovens like Parlo Pizza. Places like Black Market and Jeff’s specialize in home delivery, particularly to students in Ames. So do gargantuan international chains like Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s. Fia’s, G. Mig’s and Noah’s are gluten-free pizza pioneers.
None of this diversity should surprise us. Pizza has always been a flat out contradiction. It’s a “fast food” that can take hours to prepare, a “pie” we eat as a main course, and a relatively “new” food — at least in Iowa — that’s as old as civilization. Babylonians, Israelites and Egyptians were all cooking flat, unleavened bread in mud ovens 4,000 years ago. Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were topping it with olive oil and native spices before the birth of Christ. The word “pizza” is already plural, yet most Americans use it as a singular word and add a redundant “s” to pluralize the hell out of it.
In the dramatic lore of Italy, the invention of this food happened after Roman soldiers in the Levant tasted matzo and decided it lacked “focus,” the Latin word for hearth. So they threw it in a fire along with oil, herbs and cheese to birth the first “pizze.” Some 1,500 dark years would pass before Italians improved much upon that, after tomatoes had found their way from the Valley of Oaxaca to Naples in the 15th century. Neapolitans had been eating tomatoes for 100 years when Ben Franklin started warning Americans that they were poisonous.
The modern pizza era began in 1830 with the opening of the world’s first pizzeria — Naple’s Port’Alba — where the oven was lined with lava from Mount Vesuvius. That restaurant, still operating today, replaced street vendors who would bring their pies outside on small ovens balanced on their heads. Originally, Port’Alba’s most popular pie was Mastunicola, made with lard, sheep’s milk, cheese and basil. In 1889, pizza genius Don Raffaele Esposito created a pie for Queen Margherita of then-recently unified Italy. He used only tomato, basil and mozzarella to replicate the colors of the new Italian flag. That original Margherita pie has remained the western world’s basic template for pizza ever since.
Gennaro Lombardi opened America’s first pizzeria — Lombardi’s Napoletana — in New York City in 1905, but the dish didn’t catch on beyond Italian neighborhoods in America until after World War II. During that war, Naples became a major base of operations for American armed forces. Then G.I.s brought a pizza craving home.
Pizza in Des Moines
Most Italians who settled on the south side of Des Moines emigrated from the south of Italy, Calabria and Sicily. That part of Italy, Il Mezzodi, is rich in olive trees and wheat and is sunny enough to grow tomatoes — everything needed for pizza. By the mid-1950s, sons of Calabria dominated the Des Moines restaurant scene. One of them introduced the old “Mezzodi” dish to Iowans.
The Calabrese Lacona family opened Union Station restaurant downtown in 1946. One year later, Noah Lacona opened Noah’s Ark on Ingersoll using his mother Teresa’s recipes. He personally designed a gas oven that simulated the wood-burning ovens of southern Italy and a pie-making machine that duplicated Neapolitan crusts. By 1947, Noah was serving some of the first pizza in Iowa. Within a few years, pizzerias like La Pizza House, Chuck’s and Mama Lacona’s were opening across Des Moines. Happily, they are all still open today. Chuck’s even uses its original pizza oven. It produces a “tavern” style crust — thin, yet crisp enough to remain parallel to a bar top when held by its edge. Early pies in Des Moines were all thin-crusted, but some were pliable enough to bend in half and eat like a calzone. That is sometimes called “New York style.”
Ironically, Iowa’s taste for pizza was anachronistic. Iowans discovered this most popular use of wheat after the state quit producing it. Once a leading producer of that grain, Iowa had transitioned to become the leading corn state in America. Though still surrounded by the leading wheat states, only West Virginia harvests less wheat than Iowa. Iowa Historical Society fellows Lowell Soike and John Zeller explained how this happened.
“The railroad crossed Iowa by 1869, opening up Chicago markets to corn and corn-fed cattle. Iowa land became far too valuable to waste planting wheat,” said Zeller.
“Plus,” added Soike, “the development of hard wheat, which grew better in colder, less arid climates, became popular after of the invention of roller milling systems at about the same time.”
Anachronism goes well on pizza, which has, after all, been appropriated from older cultures for millennia. Controversy goes well with it, too. For most of the time since Des Moines became a pizza town, people have argued about which places make the best pies. Only a consensus can settle such food arguments, so Cityview’s sixth annual “Ultimate Place for …” contest revisits a subject for the first time. After playoffs for readers to select their favorite sandwich place (B&B Grocery Meat & Deli), steakhouse (Chicago Speakeasy), place for noodles (Noodle Zoo), and barbecue joint (Woody’s), we are putting Gusto’s title as the Ultimate Place for Pizza up to the challenge of repeating.
This year we start with 64 diverse places. Four years ago, we only had 48, showing how the pizza scene is exploding here. We then turn the controversy over to you. Each week the number of restaurants will be reduced by half, until we have a new winner. Many restaurants on the original list are old school Calabrese. Four of them — Gusto, Noah’s, Bambinos and Mama Lacona’s — are owned by descendents of Teresa Lacona. La Pizza House still serves its unique rectangular pies, which might well be the second oldest in Iowa. Pizza is not an acquired taste. Many people associate the dish with nostalgic memories and still love the first pie they ever ate. There is an adage in Des Moines’ restaurant world that if there is a high school class reunion in town, traditional pizza joints close to the high school (Noah’s-Roosevelt, Chuck’s-North, Paesano’s-Lincoln) will be packed.
College memories of pizza are spreading beyond campus. Pagliai’s, our previous runner-up, opened its first pizzeria in Ames in 1957 and had been serving pies in taverns for a few years before that. Like most college towns, Ames is now rich in pizza joints with The Café, Jeff’s, Joe’s and Black Market all competing with Pagliai’s, which also has a booming store in Johnston. Since our previous pizza challenge, Iowa City-based Wig & Pen and Cedar Falls’ The Other Place began delivering their college town magic to the metro area.
Old-school, south-side pies are still strong with Bordenaro’s, Orlondo’s, Chuck’s,
Christopher’s, Sam & Gabe’s, Scornovacca’s, Paesano’s, Baratta’s and Polito’s all tracing their roots back decades. Leaning Tower of Pizza and Pagliai’s have Tuscan connections. Others with long histories are associated with a specific style of pie — Felix & Oscar’s with Chicago-style deep dish, The Tavern with a prize-winning thin crust. More recently, true New York-style pies became popular thanks to Centro, which brought the first Brooklyn-style coal burning ovens to town — something that is becoming extinct in New York because of environmental controls. Taste of New York came to West Des Moines last year with oversized Brooklyn-style pies, sold by the slice. NYC Pizza Café also adds to this school.
Some of the top bistros in town have become more experimental with pizza menus. The French café Django introduced Corsican pies made in conventional ovens with French favorites like duck confit, charcuterie and a cheese blend high in Gruyere. Eatery A slings wood oven Mediterranean pies (half-price at happy hour) that employ North African flavors from merguez (lamb) sausage, figs, sumac and dates, as well as flavors from the northern edge of the sirocco winds like charcuterie, guanciale, lardo and Italian sausage. Trostel’s Dish is famous for its cracker crust pies with more traditional toppings plus an apple, Brie and caramelized onion masterpiece. French-owned Blue Tomato Kitchen makes more traditional pies but also uses charcuterie, n’duja, Bolognese and candied carrots as toppings. Cosi Cucina Italian Grill, which introduced Des Moines to wood burning, brick oven pies, offers their famous baked garlic, wild mushrooms and smoked meats as toppings. Fong’s Pizza & Tiki Bar brings Chinese-American verve to the community pizza table with sweet and sour, teriyaki, crab Rangoon etc. Simon’s employs smokehouse meats for which they have long been famous.
Pizza in Des Moines reminds one of the Billie Holliday song “Ain’t Nobody’s
Business.” You can stay out late one day, eating it at wee hour specialists like Big Tomato and Fong’s, then you can go to veritable church on Sunday with faith-based pies. Rock Power serves pizza with a healing, Christian charity. They feed the homeless for free each Monday and received a big contribution and much publicity from Ellen DeGeneres. Northern Lights similarly pairs pies with a philosophy from Hope Ministries.
So who are the favorites to win? Since the previous contest, the field is stronger. However, semifinalist Angelo’s is gone. Still, you have to beat the best to be the best, and five years ago readers deemed Pagliai’s and Gusto tops. John and Katrina Pagliai left Lucca, Italy, in 1914 and settled in the coal mining town of Zookspur, Iowa. That is a ghost town today, but a century ago, Zookspur’s numerous Central Italian immigrants supported five bakeries. The senior Pagliai’s came to America with family recipes committed to memory. Their son, Sam, started selling “tomato tarts” in 1953 in Ames taverns. By 1957, word of mouth about those doughy treats led to his first restaurant — The Pizza House — which he opened with his brother Armond.
These days, the Iowa-based, family-owned Pagliai’s Pizza restaurants go through 12,000 pounds of cheese, 9,000 pounds of flour, and 1,000 gallons of tomato sauce each month keeping customers happy. Specials such as $2 glasses of wine, $5.50 spaghetti dinners and $10 two-topping pizza (the same prices as five years ago) help make this one of the busiest restaurants in the metro. Pies are thin-crusted but not crispy enough to be called tavern style. Nor are they malleable enough to be called New York style. Double-crusted pies are offered as an option. Cheese is promoted as “100 percent Mozzarella.” Tomato sauce is quite fresh with visible chunks of tomato and obvious use of garlic and oregano. The restaurant has never changed John & Katrina’s pizza sauce recipe.
Despite co-owner Tony Lemmo’s link to Teresa and Noah Lacona, Gusto’s pies are modern. Options include lifestyle and health choices such as vegan Mozzarella and gluten-free crusts. Its cheese selection is versatile. Asiago, chevre, Provolone, ricotta, pepper-ricotta, cream cheese, Romano, Colby, blue cheese and even Tallegio (a legendary smear ripened cheese). Lemmo has sworn he will never serve a “de Burgo” dish at his upscale Café di Scala but Gusto serves “de Burgo” pies that use sirloin, smoked Gouda and cremini with a lemon vinaigrette sauce. Pepperadew peppers, pesto, peanut sauce and adobo-style meats are as common as Italian sausage. One special featured rillettes, arugula and truffle oil with Tallegio.
Even the drink selection is more cutting-edge than traditional with Peace Tree, Madhouse, Confluence, Exile, Backpocket and Millstream beers plus both Italian and Iowa crafted sodas offered. House wines included Moscato, Prosecco and Valpoicella as well as more popular grapes.
So there you have your favorites. Together, they represent the flat out contradiction that is pizza. One is old, one is new. One does it strictly by its ancestors’ recipe book, and the other improvises. Yet, it’s no problem for Iowans to love both, because they take many slow steps to turn out a superior product. Good luck choosing, readers. CV
LIST TO VOTE FROM:
Gusto Pizza Co.
Big Tomato Pizza
Chef D’s Rock Power Pizza
Northern Lights Pizza
Blue Tomato Kitchen
The Other Place
Felix And Oscar’s
Cheese Castle Pizza
Orlondo’s Bar & Grill
Sam & Louie’s Pizza
Casey’s General Stores
Paul Revere’s Pizza
Bianchi Boys Pizza & Pasta
La Pizza House
Noah’s Ark Ristorante
Encore Pizza Co.
Red Rossa Napoli Pizza
Sam & Gabe’s
Sonny’s Pizza Bistro
Marinos Italian Restaurant
Taste Of New York
NYC Pizza Café
Black Market Pizza
Great Plains Sauce & Dough Co.
Jeff’s Pizza Shoppe
Leaning Tower Of Pizza
Wig & Pen Pizza Pub
Wheel House Pizzeria & Pub
Joe’s Pizza And Pasta
7 Stone Pizzeria
Mama Lacona’s Restaurant
Use this LINK to vote!