The dark paneling, red-checkered tablecloths and empty straw-covered Chianti bottles lining the walls of Luigi's Homemade Italian Food make you feel like you've stepped into the 1950s. Oh wait, that's when this Italian restaurant opened. I happen to like the time-warp effect, intentional or not, because the décor paradoxically complements the traditional Italian cuisine.
Since 1958, Luigi's has been serving pizza, pasta and comfort food Italian style. It's a neighborhood joint embraced by the entire city and points beyond, judging by those empty Chianti bottles used for décor. Many are marked with the names and hometowns of those who consumed the contents: people on vacation; those out for a special occasion; and others dining and, apparently drinking, with friends and family, according to the few labels I read.
Luigi's features several items made in-house, including sausage, meatballs, salad dressing and all of its sauces. These include red meat, vegetarian tomato-wine with mushrooms, olive oil with herbs and besciamella (a white sauce with a tad of nutmeg). The ravioli, tortellacci, lasagna and manicotti pastas are also homemade. Entrées are served with a choice of house salad or minestrone soup. The salad is like an antipasto on lettuce: pepperoncini, marinated mushrooms, red onion and bleu cheese crumbles. It's dressed with a pleasingly tart, garlicky red wine vinaigrette. One of my dining companions said he'd be happy to eat a larger serving of the salad, not because it was too small but because he wanted to keep eating it.
The soup has a chicken broth base and is thick with vegetables and small chunks of sausage and pasta.
Luigi's offers a nightly special, and on Tuesdays it's eggplant Parmigiana ($13.50) No one in my family likes eggplant, so I tend to order it when I have a chance. I was not disappointed. Lightly breaded slices of eggplant were covered with rich tangy tomato sauce and lots of mozzarella cheese that was baked to the point of caramelization. The special also included a choice of meatball or sausage. I opted for the former. These are the size of a racquet ball but far less dense and much tastier, with lots of herbs to enhance the flavor of the beef.
Also house made are the tortellacci, larger versions of tortellini. At Luigi's, with the tortellacci vegetarian ($16.25) it was hard to distinguish the shape of the pasta because it was smothered with a combination of tomato-wine sauce and besciamella (bechamel). The two sauces played well together on the palate, with the creaminess of the bechamel countering the acidity of the tomato. The pasta was thin, practically crepe-like, and filled with cream cheese, spinach and sautéed mushrooms.
The manicotti ($16.25), our server told us, is one of the more popular dishes, and I can see why. Again, crepe-like pasta stuffed with ricotta and a little prosciutto is concealed beneath a coating of besciamella and meat sauces. This is a robust, satisfying dish. It, too, comes with a choice of sausage or meatball. The sausage is juicy and peppery, but not overpowering. Smaller portions of the manicotti are available ($10.50), but there's no meat option.
Luigi's history is included on the back of the menu. Pizza was one of three menu items in its early days and remains one of its mainstays. We ordered the combination ($16.20), which features a choice of two meats - from a selection of six - and mushrooms. We followed the menu's recommendation of pepperoni and sausage. The crispy, thin crust bore the weight of the meats and 'shrooms well. I saw a lot of people come in to pick up pizzas while I was eating. And after having one, it makes sense why so many order them to go. They're a far cry from production-line pizza of most takeout places.
Throughout our meal we appreciated our server's eagerness to answer questions and her knowledge of the menu. Even though we were sated, we felt compelled to have dessert. Our server explained that none are made in-house, but the spumoni ($4.15) is made especially for Luigi's by Ann & Mann's in Colorado Springs. The flavors of spumoni include cherry or raspberry, chocolate and pistachio. Luigi's version had three different colors - green, pink and off-white - to vaguely suggest the colors of the Italian flag. When we couldn't distinguish the flavors of the colors, we were told it was all vanilla, despite the color. Fortunately, the tiramisu ($5) was far more authentic: It's imported from Italy. It was light and reviving after the heavy meal thanks to the velvety textures.
Servings at Luigi's are plentiful. We all shared bites and three of us had leftovers to enjoy for lunch the next day. In addition to pizza, the entire menu is available for takeout, but then you'd miss that throw-back ambiance, complete with a soundtrack that includes Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Andrea Bocelli, among others.