Monday, June 15, 2009

A Slice of History and Pie: Luigi's

Last week was my Grandma's (or G-Mama, as my two-year-old cousin calls her and a moniker I have since taken up) 74th birthday. I'm very close with G-Mama, and am the only member of the family who doesn't treat her like a feeble-minded elderly woman (we theorize it's because of the whole parent-child vs. grandparent-grandchild dynamic, and I'm the only grandchild not currently wearing diapers). We go out to dinner and we talk politics and foreign affairs; we psychoanalyze the other family members and share privately what we really think about their questionable decisions. G-Mama rocks.

She doesn't like to go anywhere too fancy because "I don't want you to spend all your money on me!"--though last year when we went to the Hill Seafood and Chophouse in Grosse Pointe she enjoyed the hell out of it and I just hid the bill--so I decided to take her to Luigi's in Harrison Township.

Okay, I admit: there was an ulterior motive here. I love pizza. Perhaps I've mentioned this? I love pizza. And Luigi's was just named one of the top 25 pizzas in the country by GQ magazine, so it was high time I gave it another look-see.

But for G-Mama, this was a place that, 50 years ago, she and my grandfather used to go when they were dating, and not much has changed since then. They still use the same plastic red-and-white checkered table cloths, the same cozy dining room strung up with fake ivy and Christmas lights, the same old banquet chairs, the same faux-"terrace" by the entrance, the same squintily dim lighting, and hell, for all I know the same silverware: big on nostalgia and small on elbow room.

The interior of the restaurant, from the website

Luigi's opened in 1953 as a local pizza parlor, and has expanded their menu to include classic Italian fare. Whitefish, lamb chops, linguine alfredo, eggplant parmesan...a pretty generic menu, though from previous trips I can vouch that the dishes are hearty and tasty. Raw oysters are also offered, as any good lake-side restaurant must. (The boater crowd does love their oysters.)

The wine list is nothing to add to the local cannon, but much like the rest of the Luigi's experience, its charm is in its simplicity, and the reason people continue to fill the place on even a Tuesday night is not because of its trendy cuisine or its designer wine list--they go because it feels like home. Sure, it might not be the home they grew up in, but definitely someone's home, and there's still a certain comfort in that. You can almost see the little old Italian lady stirring up sauces in the back, pinching the ear of one of the young whipper-snapper waiters when he tries to rush her.

Okay, maybe I take the old-school Italian eatery analogy too far--those whipper-snapper waiters are predominantly Caucasian females who probably grew up in nearby St. Clair Shores, but still--you get the sense that the little old Italian lady could be back there, barking orders in Italian even though she understands English perfectly well but refuses to speak it.

Yes, Luigi's nostalgic decor is echoed in the equally nostalgic home-cookin'--it's substance over style here. Portions are huge, and the smell that envelops your senses upon walking in--a blast of butter and garlic and heaven. It's cozy, no doubt--and by that I mean the tables are pushed as close together as possible to squeeze in a 75-person capacity, which means the back of your chair will likely be butt-up against the back of someone's else's--but this is all part of its charm. I challenge anyone to visit this east side landmark and not at least fall in love with the charm of the place. If it helps, you can take my G-Mama with you, whose nostalgic recollections of how the place hasn't changed a bit since she and Grandpa dated 50 years ago is sure to melt even the most jaded of hearts.

G-Mama got a gi-normous slab of prime rib ("I'm only ordering it if you let me pay for it." "Yes, Grandma, I will let you pay for it." "Do you promise?" "Yes, I promise." Yeah, right. Oh, G-Mama...), and I opted for a classic pepperoni 'za with butter-parmesan crust. This is exactly what I order from Hungry Howie's, and truth be told, it tasted almost exactly like Hungry Howie's. Which is great, because I love Hungry Howie's! But honestly, the pizza was scrumptious. Yes, scrumptious. Like, "Nom nom nom" scrumptious.

The sauce was exactly what it should be--mild and tomatoey, not pasty and overly-spicy; the pepperoni was just the kind of pepperoni I like best--small, flavorful, and so crispy they curl up at the edges; the cheese was good and gobby; the crust buttery and parmesany; the whole thing greasy and DELICIOUS. This is a classic pizza parlor-style crust, hand-tossed rounds just like you get at, well, Hungry Howie's. It might not be gourmet but it's the kind of pizza you want to eat by the shovelful. The Gourmet Veggie is the one that caught the attention of GQ's Alan Richman (made with fresh broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, yellow squash, portabella mushrooms, red onion, and grated asiago cheese), but on a return trip I will gun for the 5-Star, made with mozzarella, provolone, cheddar, parmesan, and romano cheeses. I love cheese.

We stuffed our faces, laughed, reminisced, talked about the family, and God bless her she even asked about my blogs. Yes, my 74-year-old grandmother is now familiar with the term "blog" and what it means, and has taken a genuine interest in mine...she doesn't even have a computer but damnit she knows what a blog is! It was nostalgic and cozy and wonderful. This is a great place for the unpretentious to go and just have a good evening.

Luigi's is open seven days a week, and they have a lovely patio open in the summertime that is great once fish fly season ends. (And if you have no idea what I'm referring to, you must not be from the east side.) They have a full bar and offer their full menu for carry-out. The crowd is a consistently casual crowd of families, friends, and couples, all east side lake -types (which means they either have a boat or know someone who does--not a yacht, or a sailboat, but the kind you pack full of friends and a few cases of Bud Light...THAT kind of boat crowd). Equally perfect for a non-threatening first date or a night out with G-Mama, Luigi's has the kind of charm that only a place with more than 50 years behind it can have, and that charm is infectious.