October 2005

The Original Pizza Place–Still Packing Them In

Luigi's (1132 19th St., NW; 202-331-7574. Dinner for two, $95). The first Italian restaurant in the District was the Roma, which opened in 1920 at 3419 Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park. In 1922, with the opening of Ciro's Famous Village Restaurant at 1304 G Street, downtown DC got its first tastes of meat-stuffed ravioli with tomato sauce and veal cutlet alla Parmigiana.

With both those restaurants distant memories, Luigi's, which opened in 1943, is the city's oldest Italian restaurant. It was one of the first local restaurants to serve pizza, which was little known outside of New York and did not begin to become popular until the end of World War II. When GIs returned from Naples with a taste for pizza, Luigi's was waiting to serve them.

Venerable Italian-American restaurants like Luigi's owe their longevity in part to family tradition–that of the owners and that of their patrons. Critics may deride precooked spaghetti with an excess of tomato sauce (with more garlic than is good for it) and breaded veal cutlets armored with melted cheese and swamped in tomato sauce, but if it is the kind of Italian-American cooking you first encountered, it is likely to retain its appeal.

Which helps explain why Luigi's, located within blocks of such acclaimed Italian restaurants as i Ricchi, Teatro Goldoni, and Galileo, is the likeliest to be packed at both lunch and dinner.

When it comes to pizza, the first-impressions rule also influences lifetime tastes. So it is that Luigi's pizza, whose undercooked crust has a crackerlike flavor and is overloaded with cheese, is one of the most popular items on the menu.

The antipasti sampled on recent visits to Luigi's were uninspired–marinated red peppers whose olive oil, capers, and garlic could not mask their tinny taste, and an old-fashioned Italian-American antipasto undone by its institutional coldcuts and cheese. It is probably better to start a meal at Luigi's with a half order of pasta.

One thing to remember about ordering pasta, whether spaghetti, linguine, penne, or rigatoni, at Luigi's or any other Italian-American restaurant: Ask that it be cooked al dente. Otherwise, you will be served precooked pasta. Sometimes it takes two tries to get your pasta cooked al dente. After you refuse the first dish of precooked pasta, the waitress will return from the kitchen to tell you that your pasta will take "nine to ten minutes" to cook. Quite right.

Luigi's serves classic Italian-American ravioli with a well-seasoned meat stuffing and nicely sauced with crushed tomatoes. It also makes an attractive Linguine alla Luciana with fresh-flavored squid in a spicy tomato sauce that has been briefly cooked to preserve the natural sweetness of the tomatoes. Linguine with white clam sauce, a Neapolitan classic often butchered at Italian-American restaurants, is very good at Luigi's, lightly sauced and garnished with tiny clams in their shells. The only outright failure encountered was a half order of spaghetti with the house meat sauce, which was acrid from its excess of dried herbs and overcooked to a rust-red color.

Among main courses, a monkfish alla pizzaiola was overwhelmed by an overly salty tomato sauce garnished with capers and kalamata olives. An order of scallopine alla Marsala, an Italian-American standard, was ruined by an excess of minced garlic.

The most successful main course was another Italian-American standard, veal scallopine alla Parmigiana. The thick veal cutlet's flavor was surprisingly rich, striking a meaty note between its topping of melted mozzarella and its fresh-tasting tomato sauce.

In a city where authentic Italian restaurants dominate the fine-dining scene and its best pizzas are baked in wood-fired ovens, that the 62-year-old Luigi still draws full houses suggests that there is a legion of Washington diners with an enduring fondness for the Italian-American cooking they fell in love with when they were young.