For a quiet dinner for just the two of us, Cafe di Scala has been one of two go-to places for me and my wife, especially after we figured out the schedule. The food is always top-notch, the wait staff is knowledgable and polite, and the ambiance cannot be beat.
Let me talk first about the great food. Cafe di Scala specializes in southern Italian cooking and Chef Anthony Lemmo chose the town of Scala Coeli in Southern Calabria as his inpiration for the cafe. I had assumed that the Italian word “scala” was chosen because it translates to “balance” in Italian. That would be a fitting description of the restaurant. However, the word “scala” in the village name Scala Coeli actually describes the ladders and steps that must be used to get around the village of Scala Coeli, which is built on a cliff. This is also a fitting description as the Cafe is perched on the side of Sherman Hill.
Cafe di Scala also has a well-deserved reputation as one of the top romantic restaurants in Des Moines. Great food obviously helps in that regard, but there are a number of restaurants that offer top-quality meals that still don’t always hit the “romance” mark. An important factor keeping the romance that is Cafe di Scala may be that the old mansion housing the Cafe is warm, welcoming and non-threatening. A lot of restaurateurs spend a lot of money trying to re-create this sort of casual but sophisticated atmosphere in commercial space. Another factor might be the wait staff. They consistently have a relaxed and professional demeanor that allows the diners to keep their focus on the food and the conversation.
Don’t get me wrong, Cafe di Scala is not just a “couples” place. I have never been there when there were not two or more groups of six to ten all dining out together (I’d like to see that bill!). The three dining areas (including the bar) are all capable of hosting varying party sizes. Prices are what I would expect of a restaurant of this caliber and reputation in Des Moines.
Food. The food is consistently top-notch, flavorful, cooked to perfection and presented with care. We started off with the Torte del polenta, which is a tomato and zucchini ragu over backed pecorino polenta cakes. The tomatoes were fresh and the ragu had a garden-fresh zest. Cafe di Scala has long had a tradition of raising many of the herbs and vegetables that they serve. The polenta was delicate and flavorful. It was a good introduction to the rest of the meal, which came shortly thereafter.
In the past I’ve gotten the Mailae, a pork chop over sausage. But this trip I was hankering for some pasta. I tried the Cappellacci, which is roasted sweet squash stuffed pasta with Romano and a browned sage butter sauce. The waiter asked how I liked it and the only thing that could come to my mind was “Godlike.” A great pasta dish is more than the sum of its parts. When it all comes together like this Cappellacci, fat angels sing (in Italian). I know that they were singing my song.
The other dish that we ordered was the Tagliatelle. This dish consists of pasta tossed in a cream sauce with La Quercia Speck (which is a smoked prosciutto), roasted fennel and creminis. The pasta was perfect and the Speck was perfectly balanced with the sauce and herbs.
Wine List. The meal was accompanied with quite a few glasses of excellent Italian wine. While I normally approach Italian wines with some fear and trepidation given the very wide range of flavors and quality that I encounter when I randomly buy bottles off the shelf at the store, I have never had an Italian wine at Cafe di Scala that was not stunning and well worth the price. I encourage anyone who is the least bit leery about trying an Italian wine to pick something off the wine list. I think you will be surprised in a good way. Our waiter was knowledgeable about the different wine choices available on the wine list.
Cafe di Scala
Hours: Thursday through Saturday 5-10
Reservations (recommended): 515-244-1353
644 18th Street,
Des Moines, Iowa 50314
Check the twitter feed for updates on snagging empty tables on short notice (or glorious photos of the daily special): @CafedisScala