There's a lot of very good Italian restaurants in the Des Moines area and one that I hadn't been to for a long, long time is Latin King on Des Moines' east side. I figured the last time I went there was over 20 years ago with my dad for lunch. Things have changed dramatically at Latin King since my last visit.
Actually, it's officially known as Tursi's Latin King, named after owner Bob Tursi. Tursi purchased Latin King in the summer of 1983 from founders Jim and Rose Pigneri who had opened the restaurant in 1947. The Pigneri's and Bob Tursi's parents had come from the same small town in Italy. Bob Tursi's father, Joe, was a well-known clothier on Des Moines' south side for years. Bob Tursi had gotten his start in the restaurant business working at the old Crystal Tree restaurant on Fleur Drive at the age of 16. He ended up buying Latin King in 1983 at the tender age of 21. He and his wife, Amy, continue to run the business today.
(Bob Tursi is also involved with the Exile Brewing Company in downtown Des Moines with his son, R.J. The younger Tursi had spent time at a small family winery in Italy learning about wine before coming back to Des Moines and opening the brewpub with his father. Click here to read my entry on Exile Brewing Company. R.J. Tursi is also the sommelier at Latin King.)
About 10 years ago, the Tursi's invested nearly $1.5 million into an expansion and upgrade of the restaurant. New dining areas were added along with an upgrade of the bar area. A new entrance on the north side of the building was built along with an expanded parking lot. The outside of the building looks more like a small Italian villa complete with stucco and an old world look.
The remnants of the original Latin King are still in evidence with the original dining room. I remember walking into the building from the east side years ago. That's all closed up now. But the cozy nature of the dining room is still evident.
The bar has more of a modern flair that what I remember about the old bar area. Soft lighting, tiled floors and an elegant wood decor highlights the bar area with a fireplace along the north wall of the bar area.
The middle dining room (below left) is, I believe, part of the original building. But, once again, it's been so long since I was last in there that I can't remember. The lower ceiling with can lighting gave the room it's signature cozy and comfy feeling.
The newest dining room is just to the left of the new entrance. Higher ceilings and a paint scheme to make it appear that you were eating in an old world Italian outdoor patio helped liven up the room.
As it has been since 1947, the Latin King sits on Hubbell Ave. just north of E. University, right across the street from the Anderson Erickson Dairy and the iconic dairy cow statues that look out to the corner of Hubbell and E. University. (see map) The cow - Annie - has been in place since 1966, while the calf - Eric - joined her in 1977. The two were damaged by vandals - the calf had to be completely replaced - in 2007. If you see the cows, then Tursi's Latin King is just across the street to the west.
I walked into the new waiting area with the bar off to the left. It was around 8:30 and no one was there to greet me. Finally, Bob Tursi popped his head around the corner and said, "Sir, has anyone helped you?" I told him that they hadn't and I told him that I was by myself for dinner. He grabbed a menu and took me into the new dining room and showed me a seat at a booth. He said that my waiter would be with me shortly.
And shortly thereafter, my waiter - Phiz - came over to greet me. I ordered up a beer while I looked through the menu. (For larger parties, Tursi's Latin King also has a family-style dining menu that offers a number of appetizer and entree combinations.) They're famous for their Chicken Speidini and Steak Duburgo at Latin King, as well as for their pasta and seafood dishes. The Pepper Steak is also a longtime favorite with strips of beef grilled with a variety of peppers, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes.
I was thinking about getting some pasta that evening and while I remember their lasagna being pretty good, I was looking for something a little more daring. The Penne Regine sounded like it would fit the bill for me that evening and I ordered that up from Phiz when he came back.
I also wanted to get some wine with the meal. The wine list at Latin King was a little strange. It was printed on a rather ratty looking piece of paper. No wine book, nothing fancy. For a restaurant that has a pretty extensive and impressive wine list, I thought the presentation of the list would be a little nicer. My guess is that the wine list changes rather frequently. Nonetheless, I found a 2007 Haras Maipo Valley cabernet from Chile that they had by the glass. Phiz suggested that I get a half carafe of the Haras cab as it was cheaper if I was thinking about having more than one glass. ($6 bucks for a glass - $10 for a half-carafe.) Actually, I wasn't thinking about having more than one glass until he suggested it. (Great upselling on his part.)
A salad and a loaf of warm sliced homemade bread came with the meal. The salad was all right with their house oil and vinaigrette dressing. But the bread was absolutely delicious.
The Penne Regine came out and it wasn't quite what I envisioned when I ordered. The discription in the menu had the dish in a light cream sauce with brandy. There was barely a sauce on the pasta. However, there were ample amounts of prosciutto ham, fresh mushroom slices and peas along with slices of tomato mixed in. It was a lot of food - there was no way I was going to be able to finish it. But I tried. The penne pasta was cooked perfectly, the prosciutto gave the entree a little kick, and the mushrooms and peas were a nice complement to the overall taste. I probably ate 60 percent of what was in the bowl - including all the mushroom slices and prosciutto I could find - before I threw in the towel.
Bob Tursi asked me as I was leaving if my meal was satisfactory. It was. I told him that I hadn't been in the restaurant for over 20 years and complemented him on the changes in the place. He sort of winced when I said it had been 20 years since my last visit and he said, "I hope you're from out of town." I told him that I used to live in Newton but had been over in the Quad Cities since 1991. He said, "Well, I hope it isn't another 20 years before you come back to see us." I told him it wouldn't be. As I said, there's a lot of very good Italian restaurants in Des Moines and Tursi's Latin King is among the best. The food was good, as was the service. Even though the wine list was rather ratty looking, it was an interesting blend of Italian and North American wines including a number of wines from the state of Iowa. You probably won't go wrong if you want to get a good Italian meal at Tursi's Italian King.