For more than a century, downtown culture has been driven by one particular restaurant or another. Younkers Tea Room was the bomb up until World War II. National radio shows even broadcast from the restaurant. Then Babe’s took the WACs and GIs out of the tea parlor and into the night life. His reign as king of downtown was usurped by 801 Steak & Chop House, where RW Apple had a booth reserved for him and a few lucky journalists and politicians seeking an audience with arguably the greatest political correspondent and the best food writer of the 20th century.
Today restaurants have been driving growth and development in the East Village, Court Avenue and the Western Gateway. The alpha dog though is Centro, the delightful café in the Temple for the Performing Arts that kickstarted a restaurant revival on Locust west of 10th. It also rivaled 801 in its caucus season cache, often now along party lines.
When Temple saviors Harry and Pam Bookey were looking for an anchor restaurant for the restoration, they interviewed half a dozen well-established restaurateurs who told them that they could do a great lunch business but dinner and weekends would be a struggle. Then a young baker named George Formaro convinced them that a coal-fired pizza hearth would bring people in for lunch and dinner seven days a week.
Those distinctive pies, modeled after those of a few of the oldest pizzerias in Brooklyn, are still the main attraction, but mostly as an appetizer rather than a main course. An endangered species now, these pizza ovens are being outlawed even in Brooklyn. Only historically significant places are grandfathered in with new, anti-coal legislation. The pizza at Centro are thin crusted, cooked at high heat and made with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and a unique mozzarella.
Despite the fact that the entrance to the restaurant was on Locust, which was torn up or closed down most of the summer, business was brisk at Centro on my recent visits. Even the outdoor patio was full when asphalt was being poured. Though Formaro is directly linked to old school Calabrese and Sicilian foods, this is more of a hybrid of Italian methods and contemporary Iowa foods. There is no veal on the menu, probably because local veal barely exists. Instead there is an exquisite shank of Niman Ranch lamb braised with agrodolce carrots and kale, served with jus, gremolata and Parisian gnocchi, which are tiny little balls of butter and flour that barely resemble the more complicated gnocchi on the menu.
The most traditional dish is cavatelli. These pasta are made by Tony Lemmo, with a recipe identical to the one Formaro’s mother Gina taught him. They are more like traditional gnocchi than the Parisian ones, only denser and without any cheese or potatoes. Centro’s were served with summer sauce of crushed tomatoes, basil and fennel-forward sausage with fresh mozzarella. These are the best cavatelli in town.
I also tried a steak, choosing a ribeye on chef Derek Eidson’s recommendation. It was wood grilled and served with asparagus, papas bravas and a demiglace that had a rhubarb reduction in it. Pan seared scallops were a decadent concoction of cream, guanciale, cauliflower agnolotti, preserved lemon and microgreens. Two other Eidson applications stood out here — fried Brussels sprouts and hand-cut fries. This is also one of the last places in town serving a New York City style reuben, with brisket of corned beef on Jewish rye.
INSP network’s “State Plate” will feature the Hawkeye state in a new show debuting Sept. 15. The episode will include Nick’s pork tenderloin from Des Moines, ham balls from Runnells food blogger Cristen Clark, corn from Altoona farmer Melissa Eshelman, soybean succotash from Darcy Maulsby of Lake City, and rhubarb pie from Westrum Farms of Stratford. ♦