George Formaro is the chef and restaurateur behind some of Des Moines’ most successful eateries – Centro, Django, South Union Bread Café, Gateway Market & Café, Malo and Zombie Burger + Drink Lab. He is also the founder of the first artisan bakery in Iowa, South Union Bakery.
Raised in an Italian family on the city’s east side, Formaro knew the power of good food in strengthening bonds among family, friends and business associates. His education in the restaurant trade began in several of Des Moines’ well known restaurants as well as Des Moines Area Community College’s well-regarded culinary arts program.
In 1996, Formaro opened South Union Bakery and began producing handmade loaves of various Italian bread baked slowly in wood burning brick ovens.The bakery was the first to satisfy what is now a thriving demand for high-quality, specialty breads in Des Moines; its products can be found in a large number of area grocery stores and many leading restaurants. To build on the bakery’s success, Formaro opened South Union Bread Café that same year, quickly becoming a mainstay for downtown’s lunch crowds.
South Union’s success led to a much different and larger endeavor; the urban Italian-inspired eatery, Centro. Opened in downtown Des Moines’ historic Temple for Performing Arts in 2002, the restaurant found immediate success with its wood-grilled specialties, pastas, classic Italian entrees and New York style pizza from a coal-fired brick oven.
Formaro’s next venture helped meet the growing demand for local and specialty foods in Des Moines. In 2007, George teamed up with hospitality executive and Centro partner Paul Rottenberg to launch Gateway Market & Café, a European-style grocery. Located on the edge of downtown at the corner of Woodland Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, Gateway brought hard-to-find quality ingredients to Des Moines, pairing them with unique Iowa products.
In 2008, Formaro again partnered with Paul Rottenberg as well as Hotel Fort Des Moines owner Jeff Hunter to open Django, a casual French brasserie located in downtown Des Moines. Nestled between the Hotel Fort Des Moines and Raccoon River Brewing Company, Django features an interactive chef station that serves jet-fresh seafood, cheese plates, cured meats, artisan bread and house-made desserts. The menu boasts French classics such as Steak Frites and Duck Cassoulet alongside award-winning burgers, pastas and salads.
In August 2011, Formaro partnered with Paul Rottenberg and Jeremy Reichart to open Zombie Burger + Drink Lab. The quirky East Village hot spot pairs two of Formaro’s greatest passions: horror movies and hamburgers. While the menu is playful, George’s dedication to handmade quality is all business – he spent more than two years developing the ideal hamburger buns to pair with his secret patty blend. Formaro’s inventive burger combinations are complemented with house-cut fries and spiked milk shakes.
Formaro’s most recent endeavor is Malo; opened in downtown Des Moines in May 2014, Malo is Des Moines’ destination for Latin cuisine. From classic Havana cocktails to inventive Mexican dishes, MALO celebrates all the flavors of Latin America. MALO is located in the historic Fire Station No. 1, a renovated art deco building owned and operated by the Des Moines Social Club.
A passionate lover of all types of food, George never stops developing menus and restaurant concepts in his free time. Chef Formaro also enjoys developing and promoting vegetarian and vegan recipe options, an interest sparked when his daughter Bella announced at the age of nine that she was no longer going to eat meat. What started out as a necessity turned into a quest to create vegetarian and vegan food that even the proudest carnivore would love. Many of the resulting dishes are now featured at George’s restaurants and have been featured in national publications.