I have to apologize to whoever it was who suggested I try Sonny's Pizza Bistro located in the Saylorville area just north of Des Moines (see map). I really need to do a better job of acknowledging those who turn me on to places to try. Sonny's was described to me as having great pizza, excellent sandwiches and some pretty terrific pasta dishes. I always get a little leery of those kinds of unsolicited accolades, but I decided to give Sonny's a try one evening when I was in Des Moines recently.
Sonny's is owned by John Vacco (pronounced VOCK-o) and his wife, Quinby. The Vacco name is somewhat famous around the Des Moines area as John's older brother Mike (a.k.a. "Scorno") owned and ran Scornovacca's Pizza since it opened in 1973. Scornovacca is the true Italian name of the family, shortened to "Vacca" when Grandpa Martin Scornovacca came to America from Italy in 1914. At some point, a typist's error changed the family name to "Vacco". Mike's parents, Roscoe and Anne Marie Vacco, had a chance to open a pizza restaurant in the early 70's, but Roscoe had a full time job. He got his son Mike to run the business with the help of Anne Marie using family recipes. It has been years since I've been in Scornovacca's.
Unfortunately, Mike Vacco died in August of 2010. His youngest sister, Amy, now runs the business. The Vacco's are a big family - 11 kids came from Roscoe and Anne Marie. I casually knew a couple of them years and years ago - Vic and Rocco (I always that was sort of cool - Rocco Vacco) - through friends I had made when I dated a girl to went to Dowling Catholic High School back in the early 70's. They seemed like pretty nice guys.
Sonny's Pizza Bistro was opened by John and Quinby Vacco about seven years ago. I've been told that while many of the recipes are the same as the Scornovacca's, John uses his own little signatures in the dishes, pizzas and sandwiches to make them a little different from his family's restaurant on the southside of Des Moines.
Sonny's Pizza Bistro is sort of out in the sticks in the middle of Saylor Township, north of Des Moines and south of Ankeny. It's located on a corner, just across the road from a Casey's General Store. It isn't all that big on the inside - there's a bar area with some tables as you come in, and a separate dining area off to the side with nice tables with dark tablecloths covered by paper. The old-style ice cream parlor wooden chairs are pretty comfortable to sit in. A large party of about 14 people was in the bar area, so I took a seat at one of the tables back in the other dining room. There is an outside dining patio, but it was spitting rain that particular evening, so no one was outside.
My waitress came over and gave me a menu to look over. Even though I was going to get a pizza, I took a look at what else they had to offer at Sonny's Pizza Bistro. There were a number of sandwiches, pasta dishes, salads and appetizers on the menu. But I was set on getting a pizza.
They have 3 different sizes of pizza at Sonny's - a 6" personal pizza, a 10" and a 14". I wondered if a 10" would be too much and decided to ask the waitress about the 6" personal sized pizza. She said, "Yeah, that's pretty small. If you're hungry, you could probably eat one of our 10" pizzas." Well, I was hungry and I also figured that what I couldn't eat, I could take back to the hotel and put into the refrigerator in my room and heat it up for breakfast in the in-room microwave in the morning. I ordered my usual Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza.
It took about 20 minutes for the pizza to come to the table. It had a golden-reddish caramelizing of the cheese on top. The cheese and toppings were plentiful and very fresh. There was a slight Italian herb taste to the somewhat sweet pizza sauce that Sonny's used. The mushrooms were very fresh and very flavorful. And it was cut "party style" with the wonderful "honey pot" square center pieces. These are the best pizzas.
But there was something sort of wrong with the pizza. I kept getting this somewhat burnt taste with each bite I took. I'd had a couple pieces of pizza and I knew that something just wasn't clicking with my taste buds. It was when I turned over the piece pictured on the left that I figured out what was wrong. The crust was horribly burned. I didn't know if this was an anomaly or the norm for a Sonny's Pizza. I just thought it was a little strange.
Right when I took this picture, a man who had been talking with the group of people seated in the bar area came back to check on me. The piece was still upside down on the tray and he immediately said, "Oh, my gosh! That's burnt, isn't it? I'll get you a new pizza right away."
I didn't have time to protest, to say "Thanks!" or anything. He disappeared back into the kitchen area. The waitress came out and said, "Oh boy! That IS burnt, isn't it? We're going to give you a whole new pizza at no charge." Well, that was certainly nice of them. I didn't want to pay for two pizzas, that's for sure.
The second pizza came out and it was much better than the first one. This time the cheese wasn't as caramelized as the first one, and the crust was far from burnt. But that smoky, burnt taste was prevalent as it was with the first one. After a couple pieces, I decided that even though the crust was just a little too thick, I liked the taste of the pizza. The sauce was good - a little sweet for me - got good, the sausage had a good fennel taste to it, the pepperoni was pleasurably spicy with a little kick to it, and the mushrooms were overly fresh.
I wasn't able to finish all of the 10" pizza at Sonny's. Having three pieces of the previous burnt pizza had something to do with that. But the fact that they throw on a ton of cheese and toppings on their pizza had a lot to do with that. I was able to eat just one piece more than half the pizza, having the waitress give me a box to take the rest with me.
The waitress brought my bill out and she said, "We just charged you for your beers. The pizza is on us."
I said, "Oh, no. You didn't have to do that. The second one was fine and I didn't mind the wait."
She said, "Oh, no. The owner insists." She got a nice tip.
As I was walking through the bar area, the owner stopped me and said, "Hey, I'm really sorry for burning the first pizza." He introduced himself as John Vacco, the owner.
I said, "I used to know a couple of your brothers years and years ago. Vic and Rocco."
John pointed to the group at the large table near the bar and said, "Rocco was just here!" It turned out that many of the people at the table were Vacco's including John's mother, Anne Marie. We talked briefly about some of the people I knew from Dowling when I was growing up in Newton and they recognized the name of one of my friends who I knew. I said, "I didn't know Vic or Rocco well, but knew them well enough to say, 'Hi'. I had been places where they had been with other friends I knew. But this was, geez, 35 years ago. So I'm sure I wouldn't have recognized him sitting with all these people."
John asked me to come back again and I said I would. And I will. I did like the pizza at Sonny's Pizza Bistro. Once again, Chuck's and Noah's Ark remain my gold standard for pizza in the Des Moines area, with The Tavern coming in closely behind. But Sonny's is banging at the door, I'm telling you. Once they got the pizza right, it was very good. The plentiful cheese and toppings were outstanding. The service was over the top and I think they were all genuinely embarrassed for the condition of the first pizza. They did the right thing by getting me another pizza. And that's the great thing about little family restaurants like Sonny's - they always do the right thing.