One place that is one of my favorite pizza places in the whole world is The Tavern with three locations in the Des Moines area. But The Tavern also does a good job of making one of my all time favorite sandwiches - the Grinder (a.k.a Gizmo's). I was in Des Moines recently and decided to go to The Tavern not far from my hotel in West Des Moines.
The Tavern is an institution in the West Des Moines area. The original Tavern began during the Depression of the 30's, not long after the end of Prohibition. But it was the mid-40's when John and Mary Rilei bought the small tavern in the Valley Junction area of West Des Moines (see map). It featured a pool table, a bar and a small seating area. It wasn't long after they opened when they began to serve their own version of what was a Des Moines favorite of the time - the Guinea Grinder. It wasn't much longer before the Rieli's added thin crust pizza to the menu. The response was overwhelming. Before long, the kitchen was expanded, the pool table was gone and more seating became available for the tons of people coming in to have John and Mary's food.
John Rilei passed away from cancer in 1970 and Mary decided to keep the business going. She ran it another 18 years before selling it to long time friend Chuck Celsi, the son of Italian immigrants. Mary Rilei continued to live upstairs overseeing the day-to-day operations with Chuck's blessing. Chuck expanded the menu to include some of his mother's famous recipes and also expanded the original Valley Junction location a couple years later. A second Tavern - The Tavern II - opened in West Des Moines in 1995 (see map); and Celsi opened a third location - The Tavern South - on Army Post Road in 1997 (see map).
My first visit to The Tavern was a memorable one back in the late 70's when I was with a group of guys I used to play basketball with. After an organizational meeting we attended for a men's basketball league in West Des Moines, we walked down the street to The Tavern for a couple beers. We started off having beers only, then we saw someone bring out one of their pizzas. Someone in our group said, "Hey, that doesn't look bad." We ended up ordering a large pizza and a large order of their great homemade onion rings between the four of us and I've been hooked ever since.
The Tavern features thin crust pizza with loads of fresh toppings including the big chunks of sausage that I like. One of my favorites is their "Sting" pizza - seasoned Italian sausage, jalapenos and hot pepper cheese. Oh man! It definitely gets your attention! They also feature a Grinder called the "Sting" that has jalapenos and is topped with pepper jack cheese instead of Mozzarella. That, too, is one of my favorite sandwiches to have when I'm at The Tavern.
The Tavern II seats about 375 people so waiting is usually never a problem. It's split into two large rooms with a small private room toward the back of the place. As you walk in, there's a large bar area to the right and that's the room the hostess sat me in the night I was there recently. I wasn't really in the mood for pizza, but I did think a "Sting" Grinder would be a spot-hitter. I ordered one of those along with a dinner salad with The Tavern's homemade creamy Parmesan.
For as extensive of a menu that The Tavern has, I haven't ever tried anything OTHER than the pizza, Grinder sandwiches or their great onion rings, and I've been going there for over 30 years. In addition to pasta dishes, chicken Parmesan and beef Deburgo on the menu, The Tavern also has a number of sandwiches, salads and appetizers to choose from. The Tavern is also offering Chicago "deep dish" style pizzas, too. But I usually just go for the thin-crust pizza and the Grinders. Both are very good.
After finishing my salad, my waiter brought out the "Sting" Grinder with a side of fries. Over the years, I think the size of the Grinder at The Tavern has shrunk while the price has gone up. But I've got past that long ago. The "Sting" Grinder is cut in half and oozes cheese, seasoned Italian sausage and jalapenos. While the jalapenos get your attention, they don't overpower the taste of the sausage which is the key to the sandwich. The bread is sort of crunchy from the high temperature cooking process to melt the cheese, but not hard or burnt tasting. It didn't take me long to devour the "Sting" Grinder. And, as always, it was great.
The Tavern is a good bet - at any of their locations - to have a good meal if you're in the mood for pizza or a Grinder. Usually, people say the original location is the best, but I think all three Tavern locations do a fine job. The Tavern is another example of good, down-home Italian food that you can find in the Des Moines area.