Sunday, March 16, 2014

Restaurant Review: Date Night with The Chef and Riccelli's

"Honey, let's go for Italian tonight."

Normally at my house those words are met with a look of "You have GOT to be kidding me." After all, I live with my very own Italian chef. He can make me a fantastic Italian dinner without batting an eye. Tonight, however, his response was "Hey, let's go to Riccelli's." As you can imagine, I was delighted. Growing up on Des Moines' south side meant EVERYONE ate at Riccelli's. My first DATE ever was at Riccelli's. Too many people these days look to those national chain restaurants for a night out when the real deal is the longtime family owned and operated genuine Italian restaurant.

Riccelli's is truly a Des Moines institution. It would be hard to find someone who hasn't eaten there, nearly impossible to find someone who hasn't heard of it. They have been visited and reviewed by several food critics and been featured in countless Best of Des Moines listings over the years. Founded in 1964 by Lillian and Pete Riccelli, the restaurant has remained in the family ever since, in their original location on Indianola Avenue and today is led by Terry Riccelli, and supported by a staff that includes his brother, Frank, son Tanner, and mother Lillian- truly a family run empire.

Terry, Tanner and Frank Riccelli
We were very fortunate to be seated in the bar. The atmosphere is intimate and quiet, the lighting subdued. It was like being on that first date again! We were greeted immediately by our server and drinks and those world famous onion rings were on the table in a flash. We felt super special- we had two servers really, Tanner, and Devin who was just starting that night. You wouldn't have have known. Tanner has to be one heck of a trainer because those guys treated us like we were the only customers in the room (and we know we weren't). It's hard to find that work ethic in young adults these days but it's alive and well at Riccelli's. Joe asked Devin if Terry was available, and immediately as named were exchanged an uncle of Joe's appeared from a nearby table! It was great!

We were in no hurry to eat and dash out of there, and that was fine- we were not rushed by the staff at all. Friendly and attentive they genuinely cared about the customers in the dining room. Unlike the endless staff turnover of a chain restaurant, this is family, and a very tight-knit crew. The menu is quite extensive. Loaded with Italian favorites, a great selection of steaks and seafood, some of the best fried chicken I've ever eaten (can you tell I've been here a ton of times?) it was just plain HARD  to narrow it down to one choice! They even have Spaghetti Caruso, something you just don't see on menus anymore, and my childhood favorite. I smiled to myself thinking back on all those waitress all those years ago that tried to talk me OUT of ordering that because they didn't know I knew what it was.....But I knew I had to, so stuffed peppers it is for me, and an Italian sausage sandwich for my chef.

Riccelli's Famous onion rings
You know it's old school when one of your courses before the entree is a small bowl of spaghetti with Riccelli's famous red sauce. Salad with one of the best creamy parmesan dressings, freshly sliced bread, it was like childhood all over again.

Side of spaghetti, and salad with creamy parmesan dressing.
Now, backing up just a minute, Terry Riccelli is one of my chef's high school classmates. When Terry realized we were there, he invited my chef back to the kitchen for some chef chat, photo opps, and a look at how the kitchen operates. This was truly the highlight of the evening for my chef. He kept sneaking back there several times to get a few snaps of different dishes coming out of the kitchen with Terry's generous welcome. He was like a kid in the candy store.

Dueling chefs !! Joe on the left and Chef  Terry Riccelli on the right
Tanner shared stories with us about how the restaurant was founded, how his grandparents met and married and how he's grown up working first as a busser and now a server. We also heard hilarious stories of Terry's younger days, being so short the servers couldn't see him in the window of the pass through doors so he got stuck scrubbing pots and pans. How can you not laugh at that? You can really see the passion in these men as they talk about their experiences.

Terry, as a chef, is a MANIAC! My chef was astounded at how fast he worked, how well he managed the kitchen staff, dishes finishing on time and perfectly prepared for table after table. Folks, let me tell you, when we got there the parking lot was PACKED. That kitchen had to be crazy busy. Yet in spite of the crazy atmosphere Terry and his staff were more than happy to let Joe check it out.

Once our entrees arrived we tucked in to some of the BEST, real, authentic, homemade Italian food I have had in ages. The Chef's Italian sausage sandwich was made with Des Moines' famous Graziano's Italian sausage, their red sauce, cheese, peppers on a toasty crusty roll that was overloaded with deliciousness. What about the stuffed peppers? Well......let's just say I didn't talk too much while I was eating. The peppers were tender and flavorful, the meat filling fantastic. Smothered with more of that red sauce.......... I could eat that every day. 

Italian sausage sandwich

Stuffed peppers, smothered with the awesome red sauce.

The aftermath......empty plates!!!
One other thing about Riccelli's that really stands out is the decor. I have heard a lot of buzz about needing an update and blah blah blah. No way !! Pictures of celebrities from bygone eras line the walls, a baby grand piano in the bar- it's perfect and unique. I love that! 

The red entryway and white brick has a vintage appeal that is the polar opposite of the over-processed, pre-packaged chain restaurants and cannot  be duplicated. And with a portrait of the late Mr. Pete Riccelli overlooking really get it. These Italian roots have grown very very deep.


  1. Your photos captured the aroma. Really they did. I have been longing to find a real Italian restaurant since moving to the midwest… thank you for sharing this place!

  2. After reading this review, I can't wait to try the place. Sounds wonderful. The food looks delicious. Definitely going go there.