Luigi’s is an Italian restaurant, but the meals it serves are not strictly Italian. They are Greek-Italian-American.
Practiced culinary skills yield such robust Italian restaurant favorites as chicken parmesan, fettuccini alfredo, and baked lasagna. Luigi’s sausage is assertively spiced, complemented by fruity red sauce. Tender, herb-laced meatballs benefit from the same good sauce.
Greek classics include moussaka, which is eggplant and ground beef haloed by creamy béchamel. Baklava, a flaky honey and nut pastry, is a knock-out dessert, perhaps even better crumbled and scattered onto ice cream – a dish known as Penny’s Delight.
Crossover between Greek and Italian recipes yields interesting results. Round-the-world pizza finds extra personality in a scattering of feta cheese. The pizza oven’s high heat gives Greek chicken a crisp exterior while the meat within remains juicy, energized by lemon and herbs.
Spaghetti Greek-style is a garlic-free cognate of Italian spaghetti aglio e olio. Thin noodles arrive up to their eyeballs in a puddle of well-browned butter, sprinkled with grated cheese. You can add meatballs to the plate, but those who relish that unique edge-of-burnt flavor want no such distraction when twirling forkloads of pasta through the dark butter pool.
The pairing of two Mediterranean cuisines in one American restaurant kitchen goes back about a century when naturalized citizens from Greece sought to go into the restaurant business. But they figured that few potential customers knew anything about Greek cuisine. So the new entrepreneurs created hybrid menus that were Italian with a Greek accent.
Penelope Ballas, whose great-grandfather started Luigi’s in 1949, says it is Augusta’s oldest Italian restaurant, maybe its oldest family-run restaurant of any kind. It certainly was the first in town to serve pizza. Listed on the menu as pizza pie, it was so unfamiliar that early customers mistakenly ordered this “pie” for dessert.
Fans’ devotion to Luigi’s is as much about the place as the food. With character burnished over 70+ years, its historical patina includes crystal chandeliers hanging from an arched tin ceiling, a merry painted mural of old Venice on one wall and autographed publicity pictures of golf luminaries who have made this their dinner haunt for decades of Masters tournaments. To generations of customers, Luigi’s has been a downtown destination that says all is well in the world.
Every booth has a Wall-O-Matic juke box. For 25 cents per play, you can listen to songs that were popular long before Spotify. Heck, some predate the transistor radio.
When we visited a few weeks ago, the juke box system was broken. Ms. Ballas vows to have it fixed, but says few modern technicians can deal with its archaic 45rpm records. Nevertheless, as we rose to leave, the house sound system provided dreamy vintage exit music: Dean Martin crooning “That’s Amore.” We couldn’t help but sing along. As Luigi’s front door closed behind us and the serenade faded out and there we were on Broad Street in the year 2022, our evening in this iconic restaurant began to seem unreal, as magical as Brigadoon.
Luigi’s serves dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Lunch is served only on Friday.
Luigi’s: 590 Broad St., Augusta, GA. 706-722-4056. https://www.luigisinc.com