For 30 years, Luigi's D'Italia was the place you went when you wanted slops of good Italian food–but that was it. You didn't take a first date there, but rather the girl who already knew all your bad eating habits and wouldn't cringe too much when the spaghetti inevitably swung into your shirt. Most likely, you took your guys or family to twirl through mountains of pastas, pizzas as large as basketball hoops, baskets of bread that filled you up so much you either had to take most of your meal home or get fat trying to eat it all in one sitting–and guess what most of us did?
It was a classic, it was beloved–and no one took it seriously.
There was nothing that made Luigi's stand out from the other Italian restaurants in Orange County, not even the Italian-American ones, and honestly, I stopped going after a lifetime of patronage as a proud Anaheimer once I discovered Rufino's on the other side of town. I just assumed Luigi's would always be there, just like its little weekly ad in the parish bulletin for St. Boniface (which I remember since I was a kid), and eventually disappear as its clientele died off or discovered better places.
But an ambitious reclamation project is currently underway at Luigi's, thanks to the impetus of Gordon Ramsay. Somebody narcced on Luigi's to the tempestuous chef, because he set up shop this past week to devote an episode of his FOX Kitchen Nightmares series to save the restaurant and make it relevant again. The show invited the chica and I to try the revamped Luigi's–I'll focus on the Ramsay angle come October, once the show airs (and you know we're going to devote like a million blog posts to that), but right now: the new Luigi's, a place to finally visit for the food, a place that can combine the best of Cortina's and Onotria if it stays on its new track.
The outside still remains, that tired brick façade that might've been new in the 1960s, but inside, the new remodel is as sleek as a Vespa. Whereas the old Luigi's was dank and as gnarled as its regulars, the new interior treads on new trends without being obnoxious. You get a bit of an open kitchen, but the staff remains the same, no-nonsense happy faces that served you a decade ago instead of douche-y hipsters. Walls are lined with suitcases featuring stickers of different Italian cities–you'll feel like Audrey Hepburn (or, conversely, Gregory Peck for the gents) in Roman Holiday, and that sensation doesn't feel forced or even gimmicky. On the walls hang passport photos of whom I assume to be the parents of Luigi (yes, an actual Luigi exists–more on him in a bit), and new, playful light fixtures radiate with the feel a new-age trattoria sans the arrogance.
Luigi's menu is the main surprise–instead of the stagnant 1970s-era encyclopedia that existed for years (do people under age 40 still order veal piccata?), a single sheet now exists, taking the favorites (pizzas, sturdy subs, pastas, and the like) of the old menu and updating it for the locavore generation. They've finally started to make their own pastas here, along with the sausages–one of the Luigi's owners said she hadn't cased sausage since she was a young girl in Italy, and isn't that the ultimate ding at the old Luigi's yet the ultimate indicator of the restaurant's redemption?
The revamped dining room was slammed with those lucky 100 or so souls that was able to snag a reservation to Luigi's grand opening, and the positive vibes emanated through the room. Everyone was in their dining best, while the staff dressed smartly in T-shirts with Luigi's new logo (but PLEASE don't drop the little guy on your marquee!!!). All sorts of delights passed us by–hefty meatballs, basil-bedecked pastas, pasta platters and the like. We stuck with simple, but telling dishes: the pasta arriabata, and a homemade sausage plate. First came a butter lettuce salad, chockablock with walnuts and strong blue cheese–my chica gorged on that, while I concentrated on the calamari, which was spectacular. No more rubbery, sad, oily mess: now came firm calamari, with an airy, crunchy crust that recalled the best chicharrones or fish 'n' chips. We dunked it in an arriabata sauce that amazingly, actually had heat, murkier and distinct from its fine marinara cousin in which we kept dunking our bread.
I don't care for pasta arriabata, but I chose it at Luigi's for a reason. Too often, I find the dish a sad clump of noodles, dressed with a sauce that doesn't even aspire toward tomato water. In fact, I've never eaten a satisfactory pasta arriabata–until trying the one at Luigi's. The noodles snaked around each other like a nest, but actually unfolded once I forked some onto my plate. That great sauce from the calamari remained, and it had enough of a lurking spice that for the first time in my life at an Italian restaurant, I didn't ask for Tabasco or Tapatío. I kept the leftover arriabata to enjoy (just snacked on it now–yum!), and if Luigi's can inspire me to do this with one of my least-favorite pastas, heaven knows the others must be better–and I will return to try them. (If they can make now memorable chicken Alfredo, then Ramsay in actually must be Yahweh Himself).
The sausage dish was even better–on a bed of white beans and sautéed greens in a hearty tomato sauce, grilled so the case was a bit crunchy, the pork inside fragrant and sweet. It could've held a bit better, but hey: if you don't ride a bike for decades and try again, you're not exactly going to cruise smoothly anew, are you? We ended with a fabulous cannoli–large, but not obnoxiously so, with a lightly fried crust, sweet marscapone filling and decorated at its ends with chocolate chips. They sell them to go, displayed in a deli tray that will eventually stock their sausage, hams, and other Italian house-made delights–and therein is their possible future.
Luigi's is still a work in progress, but I feel that if they have already committed themselves to the radical revamping of their beloved eatery, they can succeed in pushing pass the little errors present last night. The Parmesan cheese in the four-ounce mason jar was a nod toward today's canning craze–but how exactly are customers supposed to use it? I saw many tables either try to tap a bit onto their plates but instead unwittingly unleash an avalanche, or use their dirty forks to scoop some up. Same thing with the little bowls of salt-and-pepper: cute touches, but I don't want to use condiments touched by the grubby hands of others. The house bread was hard, and unimpressive (much better are the fluffy garlic knots); the margherita pizza, though structurally sound, should've had more basil leaves and thin slices of tomatoes across each slice instead of half-slices of cherry tomatoes (and if you're going to make your own sauces, pastas, and sausages, why not go all the way and use heirloom tomatoes for those slices?). Lemon rind should've been provided with my espresso, and while I liked the cheesiness of the plate and cup (decorated with coffee beans), it clashed with the rest of the restaurant.
But those aren't fatal flaws, and easily surmountable. If we played the grade game here at Stick a Fork in It, I'd give Luigi's 3 stars out of 5 from its former 1 star, and a solid B that can easily get up to a B+ with minor changes, and has the potential to get into A terrain, instead of the C that it previously was–and that C was on nostalgia alone. Just stay the course, Luigi's, and don't pay attention to your hordes who'll get angry that the same lukewarm spaghetti they've enjoyed since Wally Joyner was playing for the hometown team is now handmade and better. You're a much-better place now, yet haven't lost your soul with your brush of Hollywood.
And, finally, Luigi. In all these years, I always thought Luigi was just a made-up person, so imagine my shock when I finally met him, harried, but happy. Later, I looked up the sole review of Luigi's listed on their restaurant website, published nearly 30 years ago, and doesn't it tell you something about the restaurant's previous thought process that the only press it could boast of came from the time Don Baylor played with the Halos? Then, 22-year-old Luigi Catizone was fresh off Antonello's, wowing critics with authentic regional Italian to a land desperate for anything good. Amazing–from that initial promise, Luigi had allowed his restaurant to degrade to the point that I always assumed Italian-Americans who grew up on canned tomato sauce and Chef Boyardee ran the place, not a Calabrese (I'll let Dave interject with some Italian here–or, knowing him, Calabresian slang…). This new Luigi's, if they stick to what they now showcase, can partake in the regional Italian movement that never really made it to Orange County outside of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, can let the maestro finally flex his culinary muscles after three decades serving uncaring, unknowing masses. Welcome back, Luigi–where've you been all these years?
Finally (for reals), Ramsay? Total gent–but we'll save that until October. In the meanwhile, go to Luigi's right now, enjoy the food, and congratulate them for committing to rise from the walking undead toward vibrant life without becoming jerks about it. Don't worry, JB: I think all those working-class Mexis and gabachos who remain its core clientele will still be there, with nary a Lola Gaspar acolyte to worry about…