It's become such a central part of our culture, it's hard to imagine a world without it. But it wasn't that long ago that a Des Moines restaurateur took a long shot and changed Iowa for good.
The place held a party, last summer. A Des Moines original—even at age ninety--still owned the room.
For 65 years, there have been two originals in this building - vivacious Noah Lacona, and the dish he introduced to puzzled Iowans back in 1946.
“When they first tried it, they burned their mouths,” Lacona laughs.
He’d first tried it in Milwaukee, just after the war, and figured it might be just the thing for his new restaurant.
“He actually tells me that he gave away a lot of pizza," says Noah's son, Jim Lacona, "just to get people to try it.”
“No one knew what it was," Noah says, "and I put it on the menu and nobody—they thought that was my name!”
The word “pizza” was completely foreign, as were the ingredients.
“People didn’t know what pepperoni was!" Noah laughs. "They didn’t know what mozzarella cheese was.”
Lacona brought them in from out of state, and Iowans warmed up to the new dish.
“Really it’s a beautiful canvas for a collection of really simple flavors and ingredients," says Tony Lemmo, owner and chef at Cafe Di Scala, and Noah's great-nephew. "I think that once he was able to win the people over, it was kind of smooth sailing from there.”
In truth, it took one more stroke of originality--in 1952--to make this place (then called “Chris’s Café”) what it is, today.
“A customer was ribbing Dad one time when he was working on the building and it was raining," Jim Lacona remembers.
“He says ‘Hey, Noah! What the hell you doing?” Noah adds.
“‘Noah, what are you doing, building an Ark?’ Jim fills in.
“That hit me," Noah says, "and I said ‘By God, that’d be a good name for a restaurant, Noah’s Ark.’”
And so it’s been lined with wood and windows, and all walks of life ever since. Led by two originals both of them crowd pleasers.
The man, his place and his pizza. Iowa Icons, one and all.