The Latin King Restaurant was opened in 1947 by Jim and Rose Pigneri and has been owned and operated by Bob and Amy Tursi since 1983. Judging by the crowds alone it is easy to conclude that the Latin King is still the most popular Italian restaurant in Des Moines. In fact, I would guess that it may be the busiest restaurant in Des Moines, though some of the big chains in and around the Jordan Creek Mall may give it a run for the money. I know from experience that it can be downright impossible to get in on many weekend evenings. But what keeps the crowds coming back time and time again is the food. Many of the Italian menu items stray from the expected and are actually very unique in their preparation and presentation.
If you can manage to get into the building, make your way to the bar to gain some helpful liquid distractions. Though the bar is small, it is staffed by a team of energetic and efficient bartenders. There is none of the slouching around behind the bar dusting off glasses for this crew. The night we visited there was one waiter and three bartenders. The place was packed but the crowd kept moving as it was obvious that this bar caters almost exclusively to those waiting for a table. While I suppose you could visit the bar just for drinks, this is probably not the best bar for that sort of activity during a busy restaurant evening.
The service is prompt and professional. Most of the staff I saw appeared to have been working there for a long time. They had that unhurried but efficient way of getting the order in and the glasses topped off without any fuss or bother that marks experienced staff. I would not say that you will get the same level of formal attention that marks service at Django or Centro, but it gets the job done.
A lot of effort has been poured into making the decor of the Latin King fit both the name and the popular expectation of what a successful Italian restaurant should look like. While I suppose that the Italian decorating theme is no more “authentic” than the fakery of chain restaurant’s, it is well done and does not slide into kitsch.
But what about the food? Like I said, many menu items have some unique preparations. Take, as an example, the Chicken Spedini.
Chicken Spiedini is a specialty of the the Latin King. You get boneless breasts of chicken skewered and marinated, rolled in Italian breadcrumbs and then charbroiled. I can’t tell you how good this is. You have to try it. Sure, it’s chicken, but a lot of work has gone into making this chicken taste fabulous. According to the website, it is the unique Amogio sauce that makes this a best seller.
Sure, you can get ravioli at every single Italian restaurant in Des Moines — probably in nearly every Italian restaurant in the U.S. But the Latin King offers toasted Raviolis with either two meatballs or sausage. This was a very interesting twist on a common dish. The ravioli had that home-made texture that was heightened by the toasting. It was another solid hit. I can understand why the crowds keep coming back.