Lucca finds its niche7/5/2017
Des Moines keeps turning out new restaurants at a pace that old timers think is unsustainable. The city also continues to support a number of traditional old restaurants where newcomers are rarely tempted to go. The hardest positions to maintain are in between those concepts — the places that were new and trendy 10 to 20 years ago.
Consider East Village. Not that long ago, Olympic Flame, Taste of Thailand and a few long defunct cafés were the dining options. Then the Logsdon brothers, Steve and Joe, met architect Kirk Blunck. The latter was salvaging the historic parts of East Village with new minimalist design and rents that were often far below market rates for start-up entrepreneurs. The brothers would launch several cafés on East Fifth Street — Basil’s, Bagni di Lucca among them, before both moved west.
Steve’s Lucca was a sensation from day one on Locust. He gave several of the city’s top chefs their first jobs in town — Derek Eidson of Centro, David Baruthio of Baru 66 and Carly Groben of Proof. He also gave jobs to a number of line cooks, prep cooks and servers who have been with him ever since. He has a reputation in Des Moines’ immigrant community of being one of the truly good guys. Two years ago, he expanded vertically, adding a party room over the dining room. Recently, that room hosted both Terry Branstad’s farewell dinner and Kim Reynolds’ inauguration celebration. Mainly, the place is known as a favorite with Iowa Democrats, so one senses that Logsdon is an Italian American restaurateur in the old traditional sense.
Dinner at Lucca is prix fixe with four courses for $40. Tables are covered with white cotton cloths, and fresh flowers adorn them. The menu changes weekly and offers between five and eight choices in each of the first three courses. Dessert is usually a sampling of all the day’s desserts.
Our party’s first course offered antipasti of salami, Brie, tomatoes and olives, and salads of: spinach, Greek with romaine and Feta, Caesar with creamy Parmesan, and Iowa spring mix. Good bread was also served with both olive oil and butter.
Other than an excellent sausage risotto, the second course choices were all pasta and all made from scratch on premises. Potato gnocchi were served with butter and sage. Rigatoni were served five ways: with braised beef in curry spices, with pesto and marinara, with ricotta and spinach marinara, amatriciana style with bacon and marinara, or al forno with marinara and provolone. Finally, my favorite, pappardelle were treated to garlic, olive oil and freshly cracked pepper.
Third courses revealed another facet of Logsdon’s traditional style. He believes in flavor over trendier nutritional concerns. His steak is always ribeye and always seared perfectly. It was served with roasted potatoes, spinach and a balsamic reduction. Similarly, his salmon is served with the skin on and pan blistered on one side, producing a crispiness rarely found with this fish. It’s finished in the oven and served with broccolini and lemon sauce. There were scallop, chicken and pork options that night, but I never made it there.
Dessert included a chocolate brownie with strawberries and rhubarb sauce, a panna cotta and an apple cake. Lunch is considerably less formal here with no tablecloths but salad, sandwich, pizza and pasta options.
With dozens of hot new places joining the East Village lineup since Lucca launched, this has found a niche with couples-oriented fine dining in a calm environment.
Side Dishes: Lu Li and Shuyu Wang opened Grandpa Noodle Gallery, a fresh Chinese noodle shop, on South 16th Street in Ames. This has been one of the most wished-for types of café among local foodies… Adi Bothsa opened Spice Pot, an Indian restaurant, in the former Taj Mahal location on 100th Street… Alexander Hall opened Australian-style cafe St. Kilda Cafe & Bakery in the renovated Harbach Building, 300 S.W. Fifth St. near downtown Des Moines. ♦