Italian House is full of surprises3/3/2021
There are few restaurant genres that Des Moines expects to conform to formula. Seafood cafés here are all over the place, from the air freighted opulence of Splash to the northwest Mexican bounty of Isla del Pacifico, to the fried wonders of Seafood Trap, the it’s-all-about-the-fish attitude of Waterfront, the ceviche splendor of Panka, the Japanese wonders of W-Tao, Miyabi 9 and the Wasabis. Even each Wasabi is different from the others.
Similar diversity exists amongst the area’s Mediterranean, barbecue, burger, steakhouse and breakfast joints. The glaring exception is what we call Des Moines Italian. Italian cafés dominated the Des Moines’ restaurant scene into the 1960s. Most of them were owned and operated by Calabrese families, so the menus differed little between Noah’s, Chuck’s, Christopher’s, Mama Lacona’s, La Pizza House, Bordenaro’s, Babe’s, Aunt Jenny’s, Vic’s Tally Ho, Rocky’s, Compiano’s, Noodles, Gino’s, and Johnny & Kay’s. Guests expected complimentary bread baskets, thick marinara, thin crust pizza with mozzarella, spicy sausage, and an array of pasta dishes.
Most Italian places since have followed much of the formula. Lucca and Centro have added a lot to it, but they still fulfill most expectations. It’s a brave rare bird who opens a place called Italian House, on the southside no less, and delivers something different.
Among the delightful surprises at Italian House are veal and lamb dinners, priced less than $20. Veal was dropped from the old formula a couple decades ago in Des Moines. Like Santino’s earlier last year, it’s back in glorious forms here. Marsala came with superb wine and mushroom sauce, Parmesan style with red sauce and cheese. Lamb never really had a place in Des Moines Italian cuisine. Here it is a piece de resistance. Grilled, Frenched crown racks of lamb are seared, heavily seasoned on the fatty side and sliced into four long boned chops. Served with mashed potatoes and “broccoli rabe” florets, with a salad or soup, this is a great bargain.
The “broccoli rabe” term represents the quirks of the place. First of all, the vegetable is called rapini in Italy and Italian restaurants, and its beauty is in its slender stems and leaves. Why remove them? I think broccoli was substituted, but why remove its stem?
Other delightful surprises included rollatini, pomodoro, scarpariello, osso bucco and Bolognese-style rigatoni. Rollatini is perhaps the greatest application of eggplant, thin sliced and baked with sauce and cheese. This version was sauced afterwards. It’s somewhat like
moussaka but more delicate. It was well executed here as an appetizer. So were the calamari, which included whole babies and rings.
Pomodoro is a tomato sauce with red pepper and garlic. Scarpariello means shoemaker and suggests that it is made of anything that is available. Osso bucco was made with pork, not veal. The restaurant also pays homage to its predecessor in its location — Nick’s — by serving a breaded pork tenderloin.
Steaks, also all less than $20, included New York strips, filets, T-bones and ribeyes. I tried a filet and a ribeye, and both are bargains indeed. Also on the bargain side, the café offers a short list of daily lunch specials, which produce meals less than $10. A spaghetti and meatball lunch with salad presented tasty meatballs that did not resemble those typical of the southside. There are many chicken dishes, and the traditional cordon bleu is the most popular entrée according to one waitress. Rice is offered with as many dishes as pasta.
The dessert menu is another surprise. It includes just three options, none what you expect in Italian Des Moines today. Vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream and fruit cup. On that line, one specialty of the house is the flavored margarita. A margarita flight is the final surprise and bargain. Instead of small tastings of several types, they come in large glasses. ♦
1106 Army Post Road, 515-630-6735
Sunday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.,
Friday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than five decades.