Much to like at Luigi’s12/4/2013
Des Moines’ restaurant history can be told in chapters of immigration. More than 100 years ago, both southern Italian and southern Chinese restaurateurs came to town. Those café types evolved over the next century. Pizza did not appear on the menus of local Italian cafés during their first half century. Early Chinese joints were called “chop suey houses” by the local newspapers and were frequently raided by police arresting owners and “scantily dressed” women. Later waves of immigration would bring excellent Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, Bosnian, Indian and Salvadoran restaurants to town.
Lately, the dominant immigration trend has been a mish mash of individual chef-restaurateurs recreating their national cuisines here. Michael Leo of Salzburg Café, now on long hiatus, grew up in Austria. Miyabi Yamamoto of Miyabi9 learned his trade in his native Osaka, Japan. David Baruthio of Baru66, Baru at the Art Center and the impending Pizza 63 grew up in legendary food town Strasburg, France. Jeylani Habib’s Africa Café brings us the flavors of Barawa, Somalia. Irina’s reflects the ambiance of the Russian Black Sea resorts where Irina Khartchenko and Dmitri Iakoviev learned the business.
The latest foreign-born restaurateur to bless Des Moines with his talents represents a closing of the circle. Baggio Qerimi grew up in the Italian Alps. After working in Chicago restaurants awhile, he opened Luigi’s in September with Toni Veseli in a two-room café on East 14th Street, where a Salvadoran restaurant had most recently come and gone. A parrot mural still graces the wall by a bar, though the new restaurant has no license to serve alcohol. (They do have wine glasses and encourage patrons to bring their own bottles.)
There is much old fashioned about Luigi’s. Table cloths are covered with plastic. Italian pop music plays unobtrusively. Shakers of Parmesan and crushed red peppers grace tables. Vinegar and oil decanters are filled with real olive oil and red wine vinegar. Dinners and lunches include huge scratch-baked rolls, real butter and salads. Qerimi, or someone else with an Italian accent, diligently checks on diners and fixes any minor issue quickly. I have never left without being thanked for coming.
Luigi’s most recommendable assets are more basic — food and prices. Last things first. This is one of the best bargain restaurants in town. Lunch specials run $5-$8, including the salads and rolls mentioned above. Servings seemed as large as at dinner, too. Lunch specials include lasagna, baked ravioli, tortellini ala pana (a tri-colored take on pizza Margherita), penne Bolognese (curiously made with beef not pork), spaghetti with meatball and seven other choices on a regular basis. I tried a chicken Parmesan daily special ($8) that included two filets of fried chicken breast covered in mozzarella, not Parmesan, with a pile of spaghetti in the house marinara, made from tomatoes with fresh parsley and few other herbs. My leftovers provided a full meal. Hot or cold subs cost $6, pizza $8 plus $1 per topping. Dinners ranged in price from $10-$17.
A veal picatta ($14) delivered two filets of sautéed veal, nicely crisped on the edges, and al dente spaghetti in a divine lemon sauce of fresh lemon juice, white wine, butter and secret things, with lots of capers. The giant freshly baked dinner rolls came in handy here. Luigi’s also serves veal with Calabrese sauce (brandy cream and mushrooms) and with an asparagus-sherry sauce. Shrimp scampi ($13) delivered five large shrimp with linguini in another superb sauce of fresh basil, freshly chopped garlic, lemon sauce and a touch of marinara. Other seafood dishes were offered as well, such as lobster ravioli in garlic cream. Salads (Romaine, iceberg, olives, tomato, red onion) were served on chilled plates. Dinners were served on hot plates. House-made desserts ($4-$5) included a tiramisu whose flake dissolved on my tongue.
Side Dishes Historic farm dinners are back in season at Living History Farms for $60, some include sleigh rides, etc. Check it out at www.lhf.org/en/programs__events/historic_dinners. CV