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One degree of separation in Italian Des Moines

2/6/2013

A Margherita pizza at Chuck’s Restaurant.

A Margherita pizza at Chuck’s Restaurant.

The 20th-century Italian restaurant culture in Des Moines was sustained by a mythic cult of personalities. Many cafes went by first names only — Babe’s, Vic’s, Rocky’s, Noah’s, Chuck’s, Gino’s, Gianni’s, Johnny’s. Everybody knew those owners because they all greeted their customers every night. Restaurateurs Linda Bisignano (Chuck’s) and Jerry Talerico (Sam and Gabe’s) and hotelier Bob Conley hosted a dinner last week for Gino Foggia. After 46 years at his namesake café and several more at Johnny’s and Chuck’s, Foggia has retired. Guests covered four generations of restaurant families and owned Mexican, Greek and barbecue places as well as Italian. Brook Smith (El Patio) called the group “a dying breed, and we’re all connected some way or another.”

They were treated to Chuck’s magnificent pizza, Italian salad and pasta, and Sam and Gabe’s antipasto. The stories that were told were even bigger treats. Foggia explained how he “accidentally” entered the restaurant business.

“My father came to Des Moines to work in the coal mine. He had it figured out that Italy would win World War I, and then he’d return. When that didn’t work out, his plans changed, but he wasn’t able to bring my mom over here until eight years after they’d been married in Italy.

“After high school I was working at Meredith in the printing department, but the ink was making me sick,” Foggia explained. “Delores (Compiano) took me to see her brother Johnny, and that was all it took. It was the restaurant life for me. Johnny’s was my college education.”

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Bisignano declared that Gino was “the handsomest bartender Chuck’s ever had.”

Talerico suggested that everyone in the room was only one degree of separation from anyone else.               

“Johnny Crittelli (owner of The Husker), Dad (owner of Vic’s) and Johnny Compiano all grew up together on the north side,” he said. “Support systems are everything in a restaurant. Johnny Compiano had the golden touch, but, without (wife) Kay and Gino, it would have been less.”                

Conley recalled that such connections were sometimes edgy.                

“Dad (a funeral home owner) got a call one night from Johnny after he’d been tipped off about an impending raid. We took the hearse over to Johnny’s and swept the place for liquor. An hour after the raid, we brought it back,” Conley said. “Our family ate very well at Johnny’s after that.”                

Foggia reminisced that his busboy jacket at Johnny’s had inside pockets “for gin, vodka and whiskey.” Another guest told the room that Babe’s infamous Jungle Club slot machines might be found “deep in the silt of the Des Moines River, less than a stone’s throw from the Scott Street Bridge.”                

Conley articulated the sympathies of everyone.                

“The closing of Gino’s leaves a hole in the city’s heart,” he said.                

That evening left a hole in my stomach — for old fashioned Italian food. At Bambino’s, which moved to Grand Avenue in West Des Moines recently, Vanessa Lacona Devine’s menu talked about her grandmother, Teresa “Mama” Lacona, whose recipes also built Noah’s. I indulged in most of the wonderful things one associates with a Lacona restaurant — divine yeast rolls hot from the oven, thin crust pizza (even thinner than at Noah’s or Mama Lacona’s), sweet marinara, superb eggplant parmiagano, homemade meatballs and Italian sausage.              

I also discovered some rarer treats — an inexpensive buffet (daily for lunch and Tuesday through Wednesday evenings) and homemade cavatelli, probably the defining treat of old Italian Des Moines. A couple things did not remind me of the old days, though. “Rare” prime rib was brown on both sides, suggesting it was precut and reheated. And one waiter wore so much cologne I had to cover my nose each time he walked by my table. CV

Side Dishes Chef Hal Jasa has left Proof to teach snowboarding… Gino’s West Glen closed last week.

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