Good food, good atmosphere and good vibes have kept Luigi’s Diner a thriving business, despite not being listed in the telephone book for the past two years. Instead of advertising in the Yellow Pages, the restaurant has become completely dependent on its loyal customers and convenient location.
Located at 102 King St., where Pickney, Main and King Streets intersect, Luigi’s Diner promises “Real good service” and “Real good food.” The management is true to its word. Luigi’s idea of “Real good food” extends further than the typical Italian-American kitchen. Head chef Jennifer Gaber lets her imagination run wild with her menu and with nightly specials that often feature locally grown organic ingredients.
Given its juxtaposition of red-and-white-checkered tablecloths with hardwood floors and linen napkins, Luigi’s diner seems like a cross between a stereotypical Italian-American family eatery and a fresh yuppy bistro. Upbeat jazz music fills the air and the mood is “festive,” as waitress Erica Playman describes it. The clientele is diverse —
families with members of all different ages, young and old couples, and groups of friends.
The menu doles out tried and true ingredients in adventurous new combinations. Long, thin, ovular garlic crostini — hard toasted pieces of garlic bread — protrude from a dollop of inviting chevre cheese to make up the center of the platter. Portions of marinated artichokes, kalmata olives, tomato-garlic salad, fresh mozzarella, genoa salami and capicola ham surround the crostini and cheese. The tastes are all divine and their combinations are magical.
Amazingly, only two of the seven appetizers offered at Luigi’s include meat. Four out of the 13 appetizing entrees and at least one of the soups de jour are vegetarian. In order to save their customers from the sometimes-excruciating decision of which wine to choose, Luigi’s Diner offers recommendations for a glass of wine that would complement each entrée. A mix of imported and domestic beers and wines (by the glass and bottle) are also available.
The salmon salad sounds tempting — a “fresh Atlantic salmon baked with seasonal vegetables, served with a citrus tomato broth fontina cheese, on a bed of baby spinach.” But the Artichoke salad is what sparked my interest: “mixed greens tossed with artichoke hearts, red onions, tomato vinaigrette, toasted pine nuts and chevre, with the option of grilled chicken breast. The red onions are the most prominent taste and the chevre gives a pleasant mellow texture. The tomato vinaigrette adds a nice base tone and the pine nuts a bit of crunch for a pleasing overall effect.
Playman was initially surprised that the most popular dishes at Luigi’s are not the typical Italian ones, but instead the herb-roasted pork tenderloin and the butternut squash rotollo with chicken. The herb-roasted pork tenderloin is marinated to the point where it almost explodes with savory juices. The meat is tender and succulent. The sides of garlic mashed potatoes, vegetables and caramelized shallots drizzled with a thin, herbed pan gravy round out the meal perfectly.
Rotollo is a thin sheet of fresh pasta covered with a mixture of roasted butternut squash, herbed Wisconsin chevre and rolled, cooked spinach. This was the first time that I sampled rotollo and though it was a bit starchy, I was very impressed with its unique combination of tastes. The herb-breaded chicken breast that accompanies the pasta roll is crisp and beautifully tender. The rich basil-pesto cream sauce gives the dish a somewhat heavy feel but is truly delicious.
My portions at Luigi’s were large enough for a hearty lunch of leftovers the next day, and also enough to dissuade me from eating dessert, though the list was lovely. Luigi’s food, service and presentation all deserve the greatest compliment possible: “Real good.”