Is it any surprise the jewel of chef George Formaro’s dining crown would once again shine brightest?
The downtown Italian restaurant once again shot to the front of our Top 100 Restaurants poll, with a decisive victory, showing up on 313 more lists than its closest competitor.
Centro is located right on the edge of the hot Western Gateway area, but when the restaurant opened in 2002, the area wasn’t such a safe bet.
“Harry (Bookey, who renovated the Temple for Performing Arts and is a Centro partner) had talked to almost every other restaurateur in the state and they didn’t see the potential,” said Paul Rottenberg, who owns Orchestrate Management and is a partner in Centro. “I thought it would be a cool project in a cool place, but George and Harry both thought it would be an off-the-charts winner. Fortunately, they were right.”
Formaro and his partners initially thought Centro would end up a more pizza-focused restaurant — upscale look, but with a casual menu. Pizza does big volume at the restaurant, but Centro’s many entrees have taken the spotlight, with gnocci verde, steak Centro, and more playful dishes like the Kill Bill Pork Tenderloin winning over fans.
So what’s new with Centro since it topped our list in December 2009? Not a whole lot, though Formaro was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Midwest last year. Centro (and Formaro’s restaurants) started a weekly “Dine Out in Season” menu, spotlighting ingredients from local farmers. Centro also added 15 iPads to act as “digital sommeliers” for guests, suggesting wine pairings and providing details on flavor profiles.
Centro rotates in new dishes to keep things fresh, but if it isn’t broke, they don’t try to fix it.
“I have to give George a lot of credit for the consistency of the food product. A lot of innovative, long-term thinking went into the menu,” Rottenberg said. “We spent years developing everything.”
Currently, Formaro is spending most of his cooking time at Zombie Burger, getting the new East Village eatery up and running. The restaurant was designed to eventually not need Formaro in the kitchen as regularly, but while he’s gone, executive chef Derek Eidson is handling much of the heavy lifting at Centro.
In the beginning, Formaro and Rottenberg were worried that pronouncing Centro might be a stumbling block for diners. Nine years later, it’s clear Des Moines has embraced the name, and the concept. Centro is part of the fabric of a more vibrant downtown. A big part, in fact. And while nine years is a good run, Rottenberg said Centro is still trying to measure up to long-standing successes, like Latin King, this list’s runner-up.
“The funny thing is people will say we’re successful, but being a success is being in business as long as Latin King,” he said.
Where:1011 Locust St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday- Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday.
Info: Go to centrodesmoines.com.