The Ultimate Place for Noodles is…10/23/2013
Bread might be the staff of life, but noodles are its bliss. Their brilliant simple paste of unleavened flour and water has been improving the quality of dinner for at least 4,000 years now. In Iowa, noodles have stretched food dollars through 200 winters, a Civil War, two World Wars and a Great Depression. Their genius comes in all shapes of geometric conceptualism, plus waves, tubes, worms, sea shells and Papal caps. We love them with sauce, in soup, stir fried and baked. Our love transcends racial, religious, tribal and political persuasions. Like “Lady and the Tramp” discovered, noodles bring mutts and pedigrees together.
That’s why we asked Cityview readers this year to determine central Iowa’s ultimate place for noodles following our ultimate sandwich, pizza and steak challenges of the previous three years. This year’s field began with 64 nominations, more than in previous years. While there were more traditional Calabrese restaurants than any other category, an amazing range of food genres was included — Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, diners, cheese shops, fine dining restaurants, hotels, steak houses and several other Italian regional styles. The nominees included places that make noodles in dozens of manners, from stir-fry to soup, as well as places that only serve one pasta dish.
As the contest halved the number of survivors each week, some surprises occurred. Café di Scala, the only restaurant in town that makes all its many pasta from flour and egg scratch, was bumped in the second round. Only two traditional Calabrese restaurants, Noah’s and Noodles, made it to the round of eight. Two new restaurants not only achieved final-four status, but they did it on the strength of a single marvelous dish: Akebono 515’s pork belly and poached egg sumo ramen; and Cityscape’s ravioli lauto — a hand-made pasta with truffled egg, chevre, wild mushrooms and duck confit.
By the final round, voters had taken their noodle love literally. Noodles Pasta Shop (Noodles) and Noodle Zoo of Ankeny faced off for the title. Despite their similar names, they are as different as spaghetti marinara is from herb-crusted chicken fettuccini. Noodles has been serving old-fashioned Calabrese dinners at super bargain prices ($6 lunches with garlic bread and drinks, $8 dinners that include garlic bread and salads) for 20 years. Their recipes go back much further — to Aunt Jenny’s, a mid-20th century restaurant where the movers and shakers of Des Moines hung their hats. Its Jenny Randa was great grandmother to Noodles’ Pete Leonetti. Her marinara is the unofficial red sauce of south side Des Moines. Her manicotti recipe is still followed in Noodles’ most famous dish.
The Ankeny Noodle Zoo is a different breed, even from other stores in a chain, which mentions “waking people up” with “high volume” music on its website. The Ankeny store is much larger than others I have seen, with a Sticks-like look, a mural painted patio and hand-painted floors. Its atmosphere resembled a ladies’ tea room, even when packed. Music was subdued while wine and cocktails were being served. Service was exceptionally friendly and meals were delivered on heavy ceramics with real silverware. Pasta bowls cost $9-$14 and include soup or pasta salad, and Parmesan-crusted focaccia. Six noodle choices include penne, linguini, fettuccini or a medley, each with primavera or cream sauces, plus Thai chicken, Szechuan chicken, herb-crusted chicken, and shrimp pesto. Fridays offer spaghetti and meatball specials. When I asked for a take home bag, my pasta and salad were boxed separately, my bread was wrapped in waxed paper and my bag looked like something from a boutique.
…And the winner is Noodle Zoo of Ankeny.
Side Dishes Cookies by Design added gluten-free options to its menu… Steve Kostianis of Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse on the southside won a regional mixology competition. CV