When people ask me to recommend Italian food in Iowa, it prompts a string of questions that usually culminates in, “Do you mean real Italian, or, like, sickly sticky cream sauce and overcooked pasta like you’d get at a chain Italian restaurant?” Usually, thankfully, they mean the former, in which case, I often send them to Czech Village in Cedar Rapids to go to Sauce Bar & Bistro.
My mother’s family is from the mountains between Rome and Naples. There, the cuisine centers around whatever was freshest that morning at the market, or whatever the family harvested, served in simple preparations involving olive oil, herbs and freshly made pasta. The sauces are quick and bright; if they include cream, it’s sparse and super-fresh, allowing the vegetables, meats and herbs to shine on their own.
In spring and summer, there is literally no reason for Iowa restaurants to not prepare this sort of “Italian” food, capitalizing on the area’s bounty of gorgeous vegetables, including locally foraged mushrooms, and it’s clear that the chefs at Sauce agree. This aesthetic is most clearly reflected in their pasta dishes.
Earlier this year, I traveled to Czech Village for the annual Bohemian mushroom festival — called “Houby Days” — which occurs in the thick of morel season. Though the street fest’s variety of foods called to me, and perhaps I had a wee snack or two, when I saw a sign in front of Sauce that advertised a pasta dish featuring local morels, I knew I needed to dine there.
No kolache or street bratwurst could keep me from fresh pasta with local mushrooms, especially such exotic little treasures as morels, and the succulent, earthy jewels were perfectly highlighted by the barest lick of pungent, garlicky butter and herbs and tender, al dente pasta.
Of course, part of what makes morels so exotic is their fleeting season; if you see morels on a menu in May, eat as many as you can while you have the chance. And then let the seasons speak for themselves. As local produce is harvested, Sauce’s chefs feature it in inventive ways. More recently, they featured a dish of passatelli with tomato water, Berkshire pork belly, chicken confit, red bell peppers, mustard greens and arugula pesto; the meat and produce were all from farms within a close radius, as is usually the case at Sauce. My dining partners are devoted to a variety of other dishes on the menu there, including the burger with house-made smoked ketchup, but when I want to reminisce about my Italian-American childhood with well-prepared pasta and the freshest possible accents, Sauce’s pasta takes me home.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 202.