Tried and true: Cosi Cucina

Cosi Cucina’s creamy potato ravioli is a time-tested favorite, either at the restaurant or to go, like the dish pictured here. (Photo: Seeta Lee)

By Seeta Lee

It’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night at Cosi Cucina, and there’s a wait. Tuesday is typically a slow night for most restaurants, but not here.

In a nondescript brick building at 1975 N.W. 86th St. in Clive, Cosi is somehow both easy to miss and impossible to pass up. It’s been open for more than 30 years, and there’s almost always a wait.

However, whenever I mention Cosi to others, they tell me, “I’ve still never been there,” and “Oh! I forgot about that place!”

Since it’s one of Central Iowa’s older restaurants, you might think its owners have mastered the art of social media and promotions. They haven’t. Most of Cosi’s Facebook posts announce temporary closures around holidays or bad weather, and its Instagram account has been quiet since July 2016. Instead, owner Peter Renzo said he relies on word of mouth and giving “free brownies to our ‘frequent flyers.’” He bought the place in 2017, and his approach has paid off.

Cosi is both hearty and hardy. When Bonnie and Dave Bartels opened the restaurant in 1993, it was among the first in the metro to offer wood-fired pizzas. The new eatery remained open during the floods of ’93 and has persevered over the last three decades, despite occasional rumors that it had closed for good. As Renzo put it, the owners who took over after the Bartels “turned Cosi into a ghost town and were days away from shutting it down forever.” Yet, Cosi survived, even through the pandemic.

A lot of its success centers on dedicated service. The staff reflects the restaurant’s quiet, confident atmosphere, and several of Renzo’s employees have worked there for more than five years, an impressive feat considering the industry’s high turnover. A few have been there since the ’90s.

That same quiet confidence shows up in the menu. I think of the potato ravioli. It’s a fairly common dish on other Italian menus around town, but Cosi’s take is unlike any of the others I’ve tried, thanks to five additional ingredients: potatoes, beef, red onions, bacon and a cream sauce. It’s the kind of beautiful, rich entrée that commands attention without making a fuss.

Almost everything at Cosi is made in-house, including the popular Ziti Cucina, a mix of penne, sun-dried tomatoes and Graziano’s Italian sausage. You can upgrade it with two meatballs and “Diana Sauce,” the house red sauce named after Renzo’s mother. Surprisingly, Renzo said that when he bought Cosi, the menu lacked meatballs and “a true authentic Italian sauce.”

Besides the pasta, Cosi’s staying power also comes from the pizzas and desserts. Thanks to the warm open kitchen, diners can watch their pizzas as they’re plucked from the flames. My go-to, the smoked chicken pizza, astonishes me every single time with its flavor and execution. Its crisp cracker crust withstands generous toppings without so much as a droop.

For diners who still have room, Cosi offers a smooth, housemade cheesecake topped with baked macadamia nuts. That might sound like a risk, but it works. Take a piece to go.

As I see it, Cosi Cucina is what Olive Garden aims to be. From the darkened, romantic ambiance to the local art and murals on the walls, every inch of Cosi Cucina is classy without being stuffy. It’s welcoming without being brash, busy without being loud. Renzo’s low-key strategy still prevails.

What’s your favorite “tried and true” restaurant in town? Drop us a note at editors@bpcdm.com.

 

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