Luigi's has always been an Italian restaurant that winks at Italian-American dining. Is it the upscale version of downscale Italian, or a downscale version of upscale Italian? If you are compelled to worry about such things, this might not be the place for you.
The original Luigi's Diner, which resided at the corner of Main and King streets from 1997 to 2004, looked like it had been teleported here from 1940s New Jersey; the joke was the idea that Frank Sinatra and his buddies just might drop in for lunch.
The new Luigi's Pizzeria, in the Sequoya Commons on Midvale Boulevard, has a more generic contemporary look to it, with wooden booths, mustard and eggplant paint, red-checked tablecloths, and an incongruous chandelier.
Instead of full service, customers order at the counter as they enter and then take a seat; food is delivered to the table. This works better in theory than in practice, for there's no convenient place to stand while you ponder the menu. That's less of a problem if you come in for lunch at 1 p.m., more of a problem when there's a waiting list at 6 p.m. The hostess takes your name and explains that she'll tell you when it's okay to order, and then when you can take a table; in the meantime you can order a drink and mill around by the front. Awkward! (Dinner is apt to be crowded; there are only about 17 tables, some for two that can be pushed together for larger groups.)
Despite that, Luigi's is designed to please. The menu is streamlined from the old Diner, with only four baked pasta entrees. The focus is on thin-crust pizzas and sandwiches, with a handful of salads and appetizers. Desserts, displayed in a case at the front counter, are rich and generously apportioned. There's a menu for the bambini posted at the front counter, but most kids I saw were happily kneeling on their chairs and reaching for slices of pizza. Food appears from the kitchen fast, even on busy nights.
Of the half-dozen appetizers, skip the pear crostini, which sounds jovial but is a bickering mishmash of poached pear and Gorgonzola topped with wan arugula. Better the arch idea of a meatball flight, although meatballs are heavy for an appetizer. Also on the app menu: a salumi board and stuffed mushrooms, as well as a couple more conventional crostini.
Five salads come in small or large sizes; small is large enough for two people to split as a side salad. The panzanella is a good house salad with a pleasing house dressing, but as far as it being panzanella (tomatoes and basil with soaked stale bread, traditionally) - this is a standard lettuce salad topped with croutons.
The draw for a lot of Luigi's patrons will be the pizza, and it is as fans of the original Luigi's will remember it: thin crust, almost cracker thin, dusted with cornmeal, sometimes a little charred; not chewy, not bready. While the "everyday favorite" pies like pepperoni and sausage are acceptable, pop for one of the "new favorites," like truffle or the loaded "Bada Bing," with bacon, fontina, mushrooms, a welcome sweet touch from caramelized onions, and a hint of nearly unfindable grilled asparagus. For plain pies, like a simple margherita, I'd probably head down the street to Cafe Porta Alba, although the wood-fired Neapolitans and the thin-crust pies from Luigi's aren't really comparable; they're two different ideas, two separate styles of pizza.
The meatball pasta, with three large meatballs, plenty of cheese, and al dente corkscrew pasta, got a lot of love from my dad, who's been eating Mad City spaghetti and meatballs since the days of Jimmy's Spaghetti House. The spinach manicotti benefited from fresh spinach and capers, although the tomato sauce was a little heavy-handed.
For me the strongest part of Luigi's menu is the panini. They represent the happy marriage of bread and warmed filling. They're rich, but not gloppy. The "Yeah Buddy" is the fulfillment of a salami, capicola and mortadella sub. The chicken muffaletta (a first cousin to the original Luigi's chicken olivada sandwich) sports an excellent olive-peppadew relish that seesaws between briny-salty and spicy-sweet. The chicken Parm eschews the usual heavily breaded slab of chicken for lightly grilled, accompanied by fresh spinach, Parmesan and tomato sauce. Any of the panini will make a snappy lunch or dinner. At $8-$9, with a side of pasta salad or cup of soup included, it's a great price point.
And with Ol' Blue Eyes on the soundtrack, for this dining hour, you may feel that you have the world on a string.