Braciole became a part of American pop culture when Debra, Ray Barone’s long-suffering wife on television sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, prepared a braciole dish everyone in the family liked too much. A notoriously bad cook who may have unintentionally ruined her husband’s taste buds, her braciole was better even than the version prepared by her competitive mother-in-law Marie, the bona fide chef in the family. Quite naturally Marie didn’t share the ardor the men in the family felt toward Debra’s culinary masterpiece. That meant all-out war.
Luigi’s is one of the few (perhaps only) restaurants in town to serve braciole, a traditional Southern Italian dish featuring savory rolls of stuffed lean meat braised in a tomato sauce. At least two other Duke City restaurants serve Involtini, a Northern Italian version of the dish while Dagmar’s Restaurant & Strudel House prepares Rouladen, the closest thing to a German equivalent. The point is Luigi’s serves a number of dishes you won’t find at other Albuquerque Italian restaurants. In fact, its menu is a veritable compendium of Italian dishes.
Luigi’s is the eponymous brainchild of Luigi Napolitano whose very last name translates to citizen of Naples, the city from which his mother Tina emigrated more than four decades ago. Tina is the bread-baking, pasta-making dynamo in the kitchen and is also responsible for many of the restaurant’s homey touches. Tina painstakingly hand-sewed the delicate lace covering over each lamp as well as the curtains over each booth. Other homey touches include viney plants hanging from pillars throughout the restaurant and a framed picture of the Mona Lisa hanging above the buffet.
The most eye-catching aspect of the restaurant isn’t the well-provisioned buffet, but the charcoal murals on the wall, most of which depict Roman life in the days of gladiators, spas, arcades and colonnades. Seemingly out-of-place is the section of the mural depicting the archangel Michael doing battle with Lucifer. Despite Tina’s homey touches and the intriguing mural work, Luigi’s does show signs of being timeworn, but in a comfortable sort of way. The only signage directing you to the restaurant is just off the street; there is no signage on the building itself.
Practically from its inception in 1996, Luigi’s has drawn in teeming masses for its weekday lunch buffet and its Friday night seafood buffet. Now, an Italian restaurant couldn’t possibly be good if it offers a dinner buffet, right? After experiencing Luigi’s rendition of a buffet, you might change your mind. That seems to be especially true of the Friday night seafood buffet which is extremely popular. Having lived near the water in Massachusetts and Mississippi, the seafood buffet isn’t something I’ll frequent, but it was worth trying once.
Luigi’s bountiful seafood buffet includes mussels, crab claws, baby clams, fried calamari, boiled shrimp, fried shrimp and other fruits of the sea. None of the crustacean offerings are as sizable as you might find at a casino buffet, but they’re well prepared and seasoned. The calamari is onion ring sized and chewy, not top tier but not bad either. Luigi’s clam chowder is better than you might prepare out of a can, but not of New England quality (in New Mexico, what is?). Had the cocktail sauce not been recently frozen, we might have enjoyed it on the seafood more.
Two of the buffet highlights are Luigi’s bread offered with a garlic butter that spreads easily and a salad bar with plenteous ingredients, some–such as beets, boiled eggs, pepperoncinis–not typically served on Duke City salad bar. Several salad dressings are available to adorn your salad, including a passable blue cheese. Interestingly, the salad bar also includes chocolate pudding which seems to be a staple at Chinese restaurant buffets, too. Even if you don’t order the buffet, for a relative pittance you can have the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar. Two soups, usually a minestrone and a chowder are also available.
One of the other atypical Italian offerings on Luigi’s menu is a carne adovada pizza. Pizza has become a virtual canvas on which pizza artisans paint with a broad brush, the more creative the ingredients, the better. There is virtually no sacred cow, no time-honored traditions left. When it comes to pizza, anything goes. Still, carne adovada pizza is one of those things that will have you doing a double-take. Even as you’re eating it and proclaiming it delicious, you’ll be questioning the propriety of this unique pizza…and it is a delicious pizza.
The crust, in particular, is wonderful with a very out-of-the-oven, yeasty bread aroma and texture. It has just a hint of char on a crispy crust replete in its outside edges with those airy holes that seem part and parcel of most good, thick pizzas. The carne adovada itself has a chile marinated flavor with just a hint of piquancy. It’s strewn across the pizza in small shredded pieces then topped with a cheese blend from which bits of the carne peek out. If carne adovada is too outlandish for your pizza, the menu has several other options, including gluten-free pizza.
While the seafood buffet may not have possessed the boatload of deliciousness I crave from seafood, the Frutta Di Mare, does. A mixed seafood (shrimp, crab claws, clams, mussels and squid) medley over linguine with your choice of a red or white sauce, the name of this dish translates to “fruit of the sea.” That’s an appropriate name considering not only the bounty of sea-birthed ingredients, but the way they’re prepared. The seafood is sweet and succulent, a perfect foil for the red sauce.
Luigi’s offers several seafood selections including one sure to appeal to New Mexicans who believe pain is a flavor and who like our food to bite back. It’s the Shrimp Fra Diavalo, shrimp in a spicy garlic sauce served over a bed of linguine. The menu describes it as “HOT!” The term “Fra Diavalo” translates to “Brother Devil” in recognition of its tomato-based sauce which employs hot peppers (maybe Cayenne) in its flavor profile. It’s one of those dishes that red or green chile wouldn’t improve; they’re not the type of pepper which makes this entree good.
If you do want green chile on your entree, it’s available in the green chile chicken lasagna. Alas, the green chile is almost decorative, or more appropriately garnish-like, for its lack of piquancy. Come on, this is New Mexico! The layers of pasta, rich bechamel sauce and molten cheese blanketing the lasagna are quite good, but the entire dish would have been much more flavorful with a fennel-kissed Italian sausage or even ground beef. Chicken, even well-prepared breast meat, is one of the most boring meat additives to any entree. Sure it might make you feel good about not eating a more fattening meat, but there’s not much you can do to improve its blandish flavor profile
As for the braciole,it’s rolled in herbs, marinated in marinara sauce and served with a side of penne. It’s also tied with a string to hold in the delicious stuffing. I’m not sure it’s quite as good as Debra Barone’s rendition, but it’s quite good. If you’re not tired of pop culture references, check out the movies A Bronx Tale and Raging Bull where braciole is used as a slang reference to the male reproductive organ.
Other pasta entrees are available with a variety of sauces: marinara, pesto, meat, Alfredo, mushroom, carbonara and even a rich broccoli cream sauce maybe even George W. Bush would like (he of the quote “I do not like broccoli and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”) A number of hot and cold sandwiches are available as is a varied selection of domestic and imported beers as well as margaritas and wine.
A panacea of Italian dessert favorites is available for diners with a sweet, but not too sweet, tooth. That means tiramisu that doesn’t taste like a cloying pudding. The tiramisu, served in a small bowl, is made with ladyfingers and is redolent with espresso, not quite enough for me, but sure to please most coffee lovers. Cannoli, the wonderful Sicilian tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough stuffed with a sweet, creamy Ricotta cheese-based filling are also available, including a chocolate cannoli. Lightly dusted with confectioner’s sugar, the cannoli is quite good.
Earlier in this essay, I mentioned the homey touches of the restaurant’s decor. Homey would also describe the service at Luigi’s. The wait staff is personable and attentive without hovering over you while you’re trying to eat. Our waiter should have worn a big red letter “S” on his chest for the way he simultaneously took care of several tables–professional service with a smile, too.
Luigi’s Ristorante & Pizzeria is still going strong after nearly a decade and a half in a relatively inconspicuous facade on Fourth Street. Good portions, reasonable prices, excellent service and a diverse menu are the reason.
Luigi’s Ristorante & Pizzeria
225 4th St NW
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Clam Chowder, Chocolate Cannoli, Tiramisu, Carne Adovada Pizza