Ultimate place for pizza: Taste of New York10/14/2015
Iowa’s love affair with pizza is so intense today that young people can barely believe it when grandparents tell them about a day in the 1950s when they discovered the new miracle of baked flatbread with sauce, cheese and other toppings. Today pizza is being made from scratch in convenience stores like Casey’s, in neighborhood bars like G. Migg’s, in polished wood and marble palaces like Mama Lacona’s and in mobile wood burning ovens like Parlo Pizza.
Americans spend $33 billion a year just on fast food pizza. Of that amount, $15 billion is spent on home delivery and $10 billion on pick-up. Twenty percent of all Americans eat home-delivered or carryout pizza at least once a week.
The world’s first pizzeria, Naple’s Port’Alba, opened in 1830 and is still operating today. In 1889, Neapolitan genius Don Raffaele Esposito created a pie for Queen Margherita of Italy, which had just unified. He used only tomato, basil and mozzarella to replicate the colors of the new Italian flag. That original Margherita pie has remained the western world’s basic template ever since.
Most Italians who settled on the south side of Des Moines immigrated from the south of Italy, mainly Calabria and Sicily. By the mid-1950s, sons of Calabria dominated the Des Moines restaurant scene. One of them, Noah Lacona, opened Noah’s Ark on Ingersoll in 1947 using his mother Teresa’s recipes. By 1947, Noah was serving some of the first pizza in Iowa. Within a few years, pizzerias like La Pizza House, Chuck’s and Mama Lacona’s were opening all over Des Moines. Pagliai’s prototype opened the same time in Ames. Happily, they are all still in business today. Bambino’s, Gusto, Polito’s, Sam & Gabe’s, Orlondo’s, Scornovacco’s, Sonny’s, Christopher’s, Something Italian, Bordanaro’s and Bordy’s all have generational ties to the original pizza makers of Des Moines. Leaning Tower of Pizza and Pagliai’s have Tuscan heritage. Cosi Cucina delivered the metro’s first wood oven pies. Centro brought the first Brooklyn-style coal oven pies to town.
With so many choices, controversy goes well with pizza. For most of the time since Des Moines became a pizza town, people have argued about which places make the best pies. Only a consensus can settle such food arguments, so Cityview’s sixth annual “Ultimate Place for…” contest revisited a subject for the first time. After playoffs to select our favorite sandwich place (B&B Grocery Meat & Deli), steakhouse (Chicago Speakeasy), place for noodles (Noodle Zoo), and barbecue joint (Woody’s), we put Gusto’s title as the Ultimate Place for Pizza up to the test of repeating.
After four weeks of voting, the top eight places included seven predictable pizzerias — Gusto, Pagliai’s, Polito’s, La Pizza House, Fong’s, Something Italian, and Leaning Tower — and one newcomer to the metro’s ken: Taste of New York. The long shot also made the final four with Gusto, Fong’s and Something Italian, and then the grand finale with Gusto.
Even owners Lou and Joy Savelli and Ashley Bruhert were surprised.
“Our customers told us about it. They’d come in with cell phones and show each other how to vote. We kept making it to the next week,” explained Lou.
Taste of New York is not like other local joints. The Savelli family (nine of them have moved to West Des Moines) has deep Brooklyn roots, specifically Bensonhurst roots.
“Bensonhurst is famous for two things — the mafia and pizza,” said Lou.
Joy’s grandfather was Gil Hodges, legendary Brooklyn Dodgers player and New York Mets manager.
A 21-year veteran of the NYPD (there are numerous medals of valor on the wall), Lou began traveling the country after 9/11, educating police forces on anti-terrorism, gangs and surveillance. He visited central Iowa several times, and wife Joy came with him on some occasions.
“We just thought there were more opportunities here for the kids. The schools and the family involvement are special in West Des Moines,” explained Joy.
The family had no pizzeria experience other than eating in such places several times a week for years. They said that old Brooklyn cafés were their model — L&B Spumoni Garden, DiFara’s, and Patsy’s are their favorites. They wanted to make their restaurant here into a New York experience. Family members greet you when you enter and thank you when you leave. The interior walls are covered with blown-up photos of New York City street scenes. Kids are given “I Spy” games to see how many subjects from the photos they can find. The bathroom is decorated to remind one of a subway station.
The pies are thoroughly Brooklyn. They make 22-inch pies, in a Baker’s Pride pizza oven, to sell by the slice ($3-$5). Lou said he knows why that’s so rare in Des Moines.
“It’s not economically sound to make big pies and sell slices. But, we want to have an authentic Brooklyn feel, so we do it,” he explained.
They also make 18-inch round pies and 16-inch square pies ($17 -$24.50). All round pies have thin crusts and pliable textures. It’s proper in Brooklyn to fold them over and eat them like a calzone. The square pies are Sicilian style with thick crusts. The family uses fresh mozzarella on its Margherita pizza and a blend of mozzarella on all others. Both the blend and the blended tomato sauce are closely guarded family secrets mixed by Joy and Ashley.
The café also serves Italian ices from Gino’s in Brooklyn. Spumoni, zeppoli and cannoli have all been relocated here from Brooklyn. Rolls, calzones, heroes, garlic knots and arancini are more tastes of New York.
The restaurant recently expanded its service to Sundays. The response has been excellent.
“We were really surprised how many New Yorkers live in Des Moines now. But I think locals love the authenticity, too,” said Joy.
Congratulations to Des Moines’ new Ultimate Place for Pizza.
Side Dish: Manhattan Deli worked toward a November opening of its second store, in the former Limey’s in West Des Moines’ Normandy Plaza. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
Taste of New York
165 S. Jordan Creek Parkway,
West Des Moines,223-8669
Tues. – Thurs.11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Fri. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.