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Food Dude

Tumea & Sons is a veritable heirloom


The meaning of “heirloom” has been extended this century in American vernacular. It’s not just for nouns anymore. I have seen it used to describe baseball fans, tomatoes, pigs, brand new wrist watches and stocks. 

There’s nothing wrong with that, but here’s what Oxford now has to say: “heirloom: 1.) a valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations. 2.) denoting a traditional variety of plant or breed of animal which is not associated with large-scale commercial agriculture.” 

If restaurants can become heirlooms, Des Moines’ most legitimate examples are Italian — Graziano’s, Noah’s Ark, Chuck’s, Baratta’s, Scornovacca’s, Latin King, Bianchi’s Hillside, Centro and Tumea & Sons. Like adoration for a particular baseball team, love for those places has been passed down from one generation to others.

Italian-Americans have respected food traditions as much as any other ethno-religious group. Many heirloom types of food in Des Moines sprouted from seeds that Italians brought from the Old World. Italian restaurants from Rocky’s to Orlondo’s had gardens behind their places.

Italian Des Moines is southerly. Traditionally, the Italian neighborhood was the southside, and most Des Moines Italians hailed from southern Italy. The only other American city with so many Calabrese restaurants per capita is Detroit.   

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Tumea & Sons is rife with traditional southside values. An oft-packed parking lot, particularly for lunch, attests to a bond of loyalty between the café and its neighborhood. Bargain prices, mostly around $12 for lunch, are part of that draw. One sometimes still hears Italian spoken on the Lucretia & Louie Tumea Bocce Ball Court.

One regular customer is comedian Willie Farrell, who has his own booth. 

Tumea & Son’s
1501 S.E. First St.
Wednesday – Friday,
11 a.m. – 2 p.m.;
Tuesday – Saturday,
4:30-9 p.m.

“They treat you like family. Not the third cousin who lives across the street and bums food off you every-other-day family, but the beloved uncle who’s visiting from Italy for a week family. All kidding aside, great people, great food every single time, for over 25 years.  

“Two restaurants tried to make it in this location and failed. Joe Tumea made it work from day one. He came to Iowa as a teenager. His wife Lu (Lucretia) came here at 13. They worked as tailors at Foreman & Clark and saved money to open this place. There is nothing like it on the southside now. It’s fabulous in every way. The walls are the history museum of the southside. The bocce ball court is the best in town,” Farrell observed.

After Lu Tumea died in 2002, regular customer Joseph Leo took over making bread at Tumea’s in the mornings. When Farrell’s wife, Jenny, was pregnant with softball legend Claudia, she frequently craved Tumea’s pesce con crema (creamed peaches). No other place in town does that dessert the same way, if at all. Today, the Tumeas call Claudia “Peaches.” 

Saltimbocca, stuffed with capicola, is made here to a classic Italian recipe that is being phased out of Des Moines’ repertoire. Boiled ravioli with meat or cheese stuffing, or both, are as good as any in town. Lasagna is traditional with cheese, tomato sauce and meat or vegetables. It has sold out as a carryout order before Thanksgiving because it’s as much a part of Italian Des Moines feasts as turkey. 

Veal is still served, three different ways. Cotolette, the best in town, is made with beef tenderloin, breaded with homemade crumbs, and sauteed in olive oil. Pastachena is still made with hard boiled eggs. Brashioli is still stuffed with bacon and celery then braised in red sauce that is sweeter than most. Tumea’s iconic creamy garlic dressing is an original recipe. They still serve taralli and cannoli for dessert. 

And, as the menu promises, “You can always depend that some of Joe Sr., Louie, Mario or Joe Jr. will be at your service.” ♦

Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than five decades.

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