This Italian restaurant used to sell pizzas out of a truck. Now it's celebrating 60 years.
The next generation is ready to step in to keep Mama Lacona a success.
Chuck Lacona motored around the Drake neighborhood on a three-wheel Cushman cart while clutching a CB radio. As the orders rolled in, the CB buzzed and he rushed large cheese, pepperoni and sausage pizzas to his customers.
It was 1963. Mama Lacona's sold pizzas this way for 15 years.
"He had a CB inside his restaurant," said Vanessa Lacona Devine, daughter of Chuck Lacona. "I thought that was a brilliant idea on my father's part."
In 1989, Chuck's son, Jim Lacona — who was 26 at the time — took the reins and sold dressings and prepackaged lasagnas in markets across Des Moines.
All of this was happening while opening Mama Lacona's third location that year.
It takes hard work, innovation and consistency for a restaurant to last 60 years. That's what's made Mama Lacona's a staple of Italian food in Des Moines.
"I wanted everything done the way my dad did it," said Jim. "We get 80-year-old people who tell us they had their first date at Lacona's."
Today, Mama Lacona's is located in Urbandale. And through the years, Mama Lacona's has served classic Italian recipes passed down from the late Teresa Lacona — formerly Teresa Tursi — who many consider the great-grandmother of Italian cuisine in Des Moines. And the Tursi-Lacona influence continues to shape Des Moines' Italian food scene.
This big family of restaurateurs and its descendants are behind such local favorites as Noah's Ark, Tursi's Latin King, Gusto Pizza, Scornovacca's and the former Bambino's —owned by Jim's sister, Vanessa, who now works at Mama Lacona's.
These easily recognizable eateries make up the culinary landmarks with family recipes that have passed down to multiple generations.
The Lacona family is originally from Scala Coeli on the inside sole of the boot at the tip of the Italian peninsula. Teresa was the mother of Charlie — Jim's father — and Noah of Noah's Ark, along with one other brother and three sisters.
Opening in July 2010, this is the fifth location for the iconic restaurant, having previously resided on Beaver Avenue, Southwest 9th Street (the building burned down in a fire), 22nd Street and 86th Street in Clive before landing the spot that was formerly the Rusty Scupper.
Mama Lacona's kept many style elements from the previous restaurant, including sliding doors, an elegant bar with exquisite woodwork and hand-painted murals of country scenery.
Classic favorites at Mama Lacona's are still inspired by fiercely-guarded Tursi and Lacona family recipes taught to Jim by his father and the Laconas.
These recipes include a red sauce that simmers for six hours; hand-made potato focaccia; jumbo-sized cavatelli using a special machine and served classically with Des Moines' own spicy Graziano sausage; and dressings from scratch — including its popular creamy Parmesan. Jim said some people might see similarities in menus in restaurants with the same lineage.
"The cavatelli is the most popular," he said. "It's the little bite-sized noodle that we make ourselves. And the homemade rolls are exactly the way my dad made them 60 years ago. We make thousands of them."
Jim started working at Mama Lacona's when he was 20 and he directs the kitchen to ensure all of the family's recipes are exactly the same as they've been in the beginning. "I want everything being made the way my dad made it," Jim said.
But the Laconas say the award-winning sauce is what keeps people coming back, and it's used in many dishes on the menu like the popular spaghetti and meatballs and baked lasagna.
The chicken spiedini with its skewers of lightly breaded broiled chicken with grilled asparagus and linguine Alfredo is another hit.
The team behind Mama Lacona's open kitchen creates these favorites for customers six days a week. And some customers have been coming to the restaurant since they were children and are now coming in with great-grandchildren of their own to match the four generations that have operated Mama Lacona's.
Katie said Mama Lacona's is known for its ability to accommodate big families and groups with three private rooms. Many local sports teams in the area frequent Mama Lacona's, along with tour buses of hungry retirees for the popular early bird specials.
"The nice thing is that especially (during the holidays), we see a turnaround of generations come in," Katie said. "They say, 'Oh, I used to eat here when I was a kid.' And now their kids are eating here and then their kids."
Katie said she enjoys seeing both familiar faces and getting to know new families in the area.
Jim and Katie Lacona are the current owners, but their daughter Olivia will eventually inherit the classic eatery.
Olivia, 20, is currently an Iowa State junior majoring in mathematics with the goal of becoming a high school teacher, but she's been helping out in the restaurant since she was old enough to carry a menu. She recently brought her entire sorority to the restaurant for the sorority's Founders Day.
Olivia said it was way too early to discuss changes she would make to the restaurant, but assured that the restaurant would carry forth its classic recipes when she takes the reigns from her father in about 15 years.
"I think it would be nice to keep it really personable and get to know all the customers by name," Olivia said.
Mama Lacona's Italian Restaurant
Location: 3825 121st St., Urbandale
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; closed Mondays.