I arrived in Des Moines one evening and on the way there I had realized that I forgot to pack a cable that was imperative for a demonstration I was going to do the next morning. I punched in a Best Buy location in my GPS that took me toward the south side of Des Moines. As I was traveling down S.E. 14th St., I passed a place that I later figured I hadn't been to in nearly 25 years - La Pizza House. I was sort of hungry and was actually planning on having dinner near my hotel that night. But I doubled back and pulled into the parking lot at La Pizza House at the corner of S.E. 14th and Railroad Ave. (see map)
La Pizza House is a somewhat famous restaurant in the Des Moines area as they were one of the first places to serve pizza in town. Partners Russ Reel and Abbie Polito opened La Pizza House in 1953 using recipes from the Polito family. Peel and Polito were north side residents and friends who went to North High School together. Their restaurant - also known as "Russ and Abbie's" to their local following - was an immediate hit. They expanded their original location three times within the first seven years of business to handle the growing clientele. Both men ran the place until Abbie Polito retired in 1993. Russ Reel continued to run the place until he reached his 86th birthday in 2010. Not finding anyone wishing to buy the place at his price, he decided to shut it down. Reel soon found himself with a mortgage that came due. Owing over $160,000 on the building, it was foreclosed upon and Wells Fargo Bank came in to buy the building.
This is the part of the story where things get a little murky for me.
Reel soon found that sitting around wasn't for him, so he decided to reopen La Pizza House less than a year later. The only problem is that he didn't have the money to pay the bank to get the building back. Local restaurateur Bob Etzel, Jr. came in and opened La Pizza House. He put Reel in a management position while keeping the same menu and was able to get much of the same staff to come back to work.
All the time Etzel was negotiating with the bank to buy the building at a price that was to his liking. After months of fruitless negotiations, he decided to close it again in late 2011. Just before Etzel was getting ready to close the business, two partners - Joe Negrete and Louis Alafro - came in and bought the business. They ran the restaurant for two weeks - yep, two weeks - before a familiar name came on the scene. Enter Tom Polito, the son of co-founder Abbie Polito.
The younger Polito opened his own pizza place - Polito's Pizza - in nearby Bondurant in 2001. Using a lot of the same recipes that were handed down from his father, Tom Polito built a thriving business in the small town northeast of Des Moines. Negrete and Alafro, both of whom had experience in the restaurant business, mainly on the fast food side, bought the place from Etzel on Dec. 16 and sold it to Tom Polito on Dec. 29 of last year. Polito closed the restaurant for a few days for inspection and licensing, and reopened in early January of this year.
Basically, everything is about the same in La Pizza House as it was 50 years ago. I'm not certain the place changed much from the first time I was in the place in the mid-70's. The outside had a very weathered look to the place. Inside, I found the same wood paneling, the same booths and tables, and the same sort of cozy feeling I got on my first visit 35 years ago. La Pizza House is certainly a throwback to the 50's and 60's.
The same kitchen facing S.E. 14th is fully functional at La Pizza House. That was always one of the big things years ago at La Pizza House. People waiting for tables and curious young kids would stand outside the big window and watch the cooks make the pizza. Waiting for tables was a normal thing back in the hey-day of La Pizza House. Other than one other couple in the place and some other people coming to pick up to-go orders, I was the only person in the place that evening.
I'm not certain the bar area was the same as I remember it, but I ended up sitting there. A lady bartender, I'm guessing in her late 50's or early 60's - the kind that calls you "hon" or "honey" - gave me a menu and asked me what I wanted to drink. I got a beer as I looked through the menu.
I do remember that La Pizza House had great onion rings. I saw that they had half orders and I asked the bartender if I could get an order to munch on. "Sure thing, hon", she said. "I'll have it right up."
When she brought out the plate of onion rings, I was sort of astonished at the size of a half-order. It was huge, a lot more than what I would be able to eat if I was also getting a pizza. But the onion rings were just as good as what I remembered. They had a light, flaky coating over the sweet onions. By the time I had my first onion ring finished, I had ordered up a small sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza.
The pizza at La Pizza House is a thin crispy crust loaded with toppings, a somewhat sweet sauce and ample amounts of cheese on top. I forgot that the pizza was oval in shape and cut into rectangular squares, similar to Quad City style pizza. Also like Quad City style pizza, the sausage on a La Pizza House pizza is ground, but not as finely ground as you get in the Quad Cities. And definitely not as bland as Quad City style sausage.
The pizza was exactly as I remembered. The thin crust was chewy, yet crispy. The overall taste of the sausage, pepperoni and mushroom was very good. I faintly remembered the overall taste of the pizza from a number of years ago. As far as Des Moines pizza is concerned, I'm still a little partial to the pizza at Noah's Ark and Chuck's. But I will have to say La Pizza House gives both of them a run for their money. Between the onion rings and the pizza, it was more than enough for two people. But since I was traveling and I was sure that I wouldn't have a refrigerator in my room, I left a lot at the bar.
I got to talking to a guy behind the bar, someone who I thought was Tom Polito as he kept talking about his dad and his family running the place. It turned out that we had a friend in common whose father used to bartend at La Pizza House back in the 60's before he moved his family to Newton to run a gas station along the interstate. "He thwarted an armed robbery one night," the man behind the bar was telling me. "He just told the robbers, 'No! I'm not giving you the money!' And they ran off! He was one tough cuss!"
Even though it was nearly 25 years since I was last in La Pizza House, not much - if anything - has changed over the years. The pizza is still well above average, the onion rings are delicious, and there's still that same homey, neighborhood feeling to the place. There may be other pizza places in the area that are better, but not by much. Don't let the tired decor and the hardened facade scare you away. La Pizza House is one of the great old school pizza restaurants in the Midwest.