For Luigi's D'Italia, Does Gordon Ramsay Know Best?
If you haven't already heard, Gordon Ramsay and his restaurant-makeover show, Kitchen Nightmares, did an intervention on Anaheim's venerable Luigi's D'Italia a few months ago. As of this writing, the show hasn't yet aired, but when it does, expect unmodulated comments on par with those that percolated when Gustavo blogged about the taping over at Stick a Fork In It. This is expected because Luigi's is one of those establishments whose clients span generations. On these Internet comments, there are two main camps: those who like it the way it is, and those who think it has long since slid into mediocrity.
Then there are people like me: those who had never been (I know, I know). As such, I cannot assess whether Ramsay's consulting job spurred any actual improvement. I can, however, tell you what they've done with his advice. From what I observed a few weeks after he left, it seems the restaurant has taken the gruff Brit's suggestions with a grain of salt. For instance, I noticed the bowls of salt and pepper and the Mason jars of Parmesan that Gustavo reported encountering during the taping are gone, replaced with more sanitary shakers.
An item that was part of the new menu, the calamari, however, is just as Gustavo described. The golden batter is wondrously fried to a greaseless, coral-like texture, served fryer-hot with an arrabiata that perks up the senses not already stimulated by the lacy crunch of the squid. But since that time, and perhaps to mollify the regulars, the restaurant has gone back to offering its old menu in addition to Ramsay's.
Luigi's D'Italia, www.luigisditaliaoc.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$45. Beer and wine.
On the first visit, I had to ask which was which. The original turned out to be the one that employed paragraphs to describe classic dishes such as linguini puttanesca and pricipessa. Veal, chicken and seafood had their own sections. Compared to the old menu, Ramsay's roster looked simplified, with the modern compulsion of listing a dish's components separated by commas. It also added pan-roasted pork, homemade sausage and other proteins under a unified list of entrées. By the second visit, I noticed the restaurant had stapled both menus together. By the third, I saw it had inserted pictures of the food and a new category on the Ramsay side called "Healthy Entrées."
Apart from overtaxing the kitchen, the two concurrent menus also meant there were now dueling versions of caprese. As an academic exercise, I ordered both. The Ramsay version had standard sliced tomatoes arranged in a neat row flanked by halved cherry tomatoes and topped with mozzarella balls the size of marbles. A swipe of basil purée and a thick line of balsamic ran down the middle of the plate, making it look decidedly progressive. The caprese melanzana, by contrast, is served old-school and family-style, with layers of tomato, roasted eggplant and thick slices of cheese alternating in a pinwheel pattern. Instead of basil leaves intricately trimmed to diamonds, there was a scattered chiffonade. The delicious union of olive oil and balsamic drenched everything on the platter. Though more expensive by two bucks, this one trumped Ramsay's in depth of flavor and could feed twice as many mouths.
The braised short rib, another Ramsay addition, tore apart easily with just a fork's tug, but in the chew, the meat was uncharacteristically dry with the consistency of jerky. Those with common sense and experience with red-sauce Italian joints such as this one would've expected to see the chicken parmigiana on the old menu and the pollo piccata on the newfangled one. But it's the reverse. The better dish is the parmigiana, with every inch of its gigantic, breaded breast crisp, hot and blanketed by a bubbling slice of cheese. The piccata's smaller cutlets were cooked well but suffered from a gloppy reduction.
After the third visit and the disappointment of the short rib, I found myself gravitating toward the old menu, eager to repeat dishes such as the vermicelli bodak. This was just one of many dishes that did not meet Ramsay's approval but should have. In it, shrimp, bacon, clams and mushroom frolicked in a thin, white wine-spiked broth that I enjoyed slurping up with the accompanying angel-hair noodles. It was also on this trip that I noticed the stickers on the suitcases Ramsay and crew installed along one wall as decoration were already starting to peel. It remains to be seen whether any of the other changes Ramsay instituted will stick.
This review appeared in print as "Ramsay Knows Best? Luigi's D'Italia will be on FOX's Kitchen Nightmares. So is the food now dreamy?"
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.