Tourists would never guess this, but a little-known fact about Des Moines is that it’s home to some of the best Italian cuisine in the Midwest. A melting pot of different cheeses, meats, and sauces that are just as delicious as they are addicting. It’s the Land of Graziano’s and Home of the Steak de Burgo.
From the chicken parmesan smothered in red and white sauce at Christopher’s, located in the heart of Beaverdale, to the coma-inducing manicotti at Latin King to the mouth-watering pizza at Bordenaro’s, there’s no shortage of Italian options across Des Moines.
As someone who has grown up here, lived elsewhere and felt pulled back to this scene, I’d be remiss not to mention that my family has had quite a hand in shaping the Italian food scene here.
My great-grandfather, Rocky, owned and operated Rocky’s on Fleur Drive. When he passed it down to my Poppi, Ralph Compiano I, he became known for calling his customers “Chooch.” On the other hand, my Nonni Rita Talarico has one of the best meatball recipes in the world, and no, you can’t have it.
These are the 10 Best Italian Restaurants in the Des Moines metro from the Southside to West Des Moines.
It would be irresponsible not to state my inherent bias here– Christopher’s has been my second home for nearly two decades. I grew up there. In fact, I attended K-8 at Holy Trinity, the Italian American restaurant’s next-door neighbor. My high school graduation party was held in their banquet room– where they served Kim’s Chicken Tenders, Chicken Parm, and Mac & Cheese, which you won’t find on the menu.
Christopher’s has been owned and operated by the Giudicessi family since its inception in 1963. Joe and Red passed the establishment down to their daughter, Rene’, and son Ron. You will find them greeting guests as if they were their long-lost cousins, nieces, or nephews.
Best Dish: Aside from the apparent Chicken Parmesan with both sauces, I’m consistently tempted by the Chicken Soto. I’m talking about a delicious dish with Provel cheese, which I can never find at my local grocery stores. To top your evening off, the Chocolate Falling Down Cake with Raspberry Sauce is the closest you’ll ever come to eating a sin.
With three locations across the Greater Des Moines area (Altoona, West Des Moines, and the Southside), Johnny’s has remained a popular location for celebratory dinners, Easter brunches, and business lunches. It’s home to perhaps my favorite Steak de Burgo in the city. Instead of the traditional oily, garlic buttery dressing, Johnny’s opts for the creamier version of de Burgo sauce. And they’re all the better for it.
My favorite thing about the Italian restaurants in Des Moines is that they don’t try to be something they’re not. They play Frank Sinatra, serve red wine, and make sure that you aren’t going to leave your table hungry.
Best Dish: Steak de Burgo for Dinner or Johnny’s Minnelli for Lunch
Although it used to be Hagar’s Manhattan Deli, the sandwich shop hasn’t changed since its new ownership took over in 2020. If anything, the Hansen’s have innovated the menu without detracting from the classic warm Italian subs that propelled the restaurant to its iconic nomenclature for the last 40 years.
Once again, my inherent bias shines through. I have twice as many memories at Manhattan Deli as at any other sandwich shop. I’ve tried to convince myself that I would try everything on the menu at least once. But how can I do that when Mama Mia keeps calling my name? Or the Bambino with that one-of-a-kind Italian salsa sprinkled on top?
For a newcomer, it may seem intimidating and impossible to choose when looking at the larger-than-life menu, but you can never go wrong with the daily special or one of the classics.
Best Sandwich: My favorite classic is the Mama Mia, but my favorite “new” sandwich is the Truly Delicious, which speaks for itself.
Stand up and run away if you don’t see the word “Al Dente” anywhere on an Italian menu. Run as fast as you can to Noah’s Ark. And order their Best Dish, the Braised Prime Beef Tips, decked with vegetables and laid on top of a bed of fettuccine. Or, if you’re with a family, you can’t go wrong with their Award-winning pizza.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about Italian cuisine until my brother introduced me to Cosi Cucina. At first glance, it looked like a sneaky solid little joint that resided in the middle of the Clive-Urbandale area. Then I walked in and was treated like royalty at 1 PM on a Wednesday.
I couldn’t speak more highly about the place, and it’s become one of my favorite restaurants in the entire area. Everything about Cosi Cucina put me on notice, from the fresh-out-of-the-oven bread to the fanciest meatball sub I’ve ever indulged in my life.
Best Dish: Fusilli Alfredo with Meatballs– their white rose sauce is, as my mother would say, “To die for.”
Bordenaro’s is home to the best pizza in Des Moines. Don’t believe me? Ask any local website, newspaper, or Italian food lover.
Bordenaro’s is home to traditional Italian pizzas that are breathtaking and evergreen in our culture. But some of my favorite pizzas from Bordy’s are the non-traditional ones like barbeque chicken with ranch on the side. And if you become close enough with the owner and chefs in the kitchen, then maybe they’ll make you a Chick-Fil-A inspired slice. But only if you’re lucky on a good day.
Best Non-pizza Dish: Soprano Tenderloin
Is there anything more in Downtown Des Moines than visiting Centro for a family dinner?
This urban Italian eatery has evolved into the elevated cuisine in the Italian community. But at the same time, Centro remains grounded by specializing in calzones. That’s right. Calzones.
The folded pizzas are pockets of happiness. And they never skimp in size either– one Calzone could feed two people on any given day.
Best Non-Calzone Dish: Chicken Saltimbocca is Centro’s take on the infamous Chicken Masala, except they dress it up with prosciutto, mushrooms, and alfredo.
My pops often attended Latin King for business lunches while my brother and I were growing up, and we envied him relentlessly. Thankfully, he’s selfless and would bring back a tray of Chicken Spiedini to satisfy our spoiled selves with our monstrous appetites.
Latin King is another restaurant that has recently changed ownership. The Tursi family friends passed ownership to a Kansas City-based restaurateur Whitney VinZant. I imagine he dropped a preposterously large tip on the table after eating the Spiedini for the first time. Who can blame her?
Best Dish other than the Chicken Spiedini: Baked Lasagna– now hear me out, I understand that lasagna is a trigger for some people because they’ve only ever eaten Stouffer’s in a rush, but when done right, lasagna is one of the most incredible things we have in this country. Period.
Located in the heart of the Southside of Des Moines, Skip’s is another one of those establishments that feels like home from the moment you walk in. If I ever want to eat “healthy” and Italian, I head for Skip’s and order the Lemon Shrimp Pasta, which comes with broccoli. So it’s basically a salad.
Best Dish: Steak Sandwich–with a bed of onion rings served atop the steak.
Not many Des Moines natives associate Ankeny with having terrific Italian food unless they’ve had the pleasure of dining at Portofino’s. Home to arguably the best garlic bread in the city and some of the best desserts that money can buy,
Best Dish: Chicken Florentine
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