ASK FOR LUIGI
ASK FOR LUIGI
UNFORGETTABLE, HANDMADE, ITALIAN PASTA
As children, our parents would buy pasta pre-packaged and hardened. The dish was plain and simple; there was no breaking down the complexity of a sauce or an invitation to discover tenderness and texture. We were often left craving more complexity and vigour than pasta seemed to promise. Granted, we didn't grow up in an Italian family with a Nonna shaping tortellini by hand or teaching us how to make a flavourful pesto. But regardless of our pasta memoir, our ears were flooded with talk about the beloved Ask For Luigi, so we were keen to get in the door.
Congregated outside the standalone building at the intersection of Alexander Street and Gore Ave, guests happily converse with other visitors while they wait for the first-come-first-serve seating. You could easily mistake the corner scene for an enoteca in Torino, Genoa, or Puglia: close-as-family neighbours convening before dinner: not hungry and irritated, but jovial and laidback.
The renovated stand-alone building had shed its notorious Two Chefs and a Table past and quickly shaped a new identity. Ste Marie, led by Craig Stanghetta, restyled the entire place only keeping the large windows. “Designing Ask for Luigi cued off the conversations we’d had with the restaurant’s co-owners about growing up with Italian grandparents: homes replete with ’70s wood panelling and boisterous family meals." Ste Marie says. "[We wanted] to pack the room with people to create that sense of familial closeness to an almost uncomfortable degree, we filled the room with numerous small tables to feed the energy and atmosphere.”
Once brought to your seat, you're intimately tucked in with other guests and greeted by a warm, elegant, and effortlessly graceful server. Dishes are advised to be shared, so the formalities of a fine dining tasting menu are done away with. "Food arrives to the middle of the table, as it is ready," Ask For Luigi reminds their guests on their menu. But that doesn't mean other romantic rituals aren't carefully considered and encouraged. Choice apertivi precede the meal, antipasti show up first, wine pairings are highly recommended, and espresso or grappa (grape-based pomace brandy) conclude the night. Ask For Luigi carries house-bottled Aperol Spritz, which keep in line with the refreshing Northern Italian tradition.
The petite trattoria contains only 32 seats, and just barely. During the day, large windows infuse the small room with light. The wooden bistro chairs and table match the walls covered in the same retro panelling with small white square tiles that add warmth to the space at night; these also complement the iconic pop from the checkerboard floor. The design is simplistic and without embellishment, save a series of framed hand gesture portraits. Glasfurd & Walker were added to the roster of creative consultants, contributing a custom typeface for the facetious name.
An Italian restaurant almost through and through, Ask For Luigi's owner and head chef JC Poirier isn't afraid to incorporate his traditional French roots and culinary techniques into the menu, but this isn't overly glaring to West Coast Canadians and is certainly not ostentatious. Crispy cattle tripe, which Luigi serves up alongside anchovy mayonnaise, is a popular but cheap French food with roots also in post-war Britain. The albacore tuna confit is one of Poirier's most popular lunch antipasti, but confit has stronger ties to French cuisine than it does to Italian.
Made in-house daily, it's not an exaggeration to say that Porier's award-winning pasta is a paradigm shifter for the formerly pasta adverse. The tender, rich, and succulent texture of their pappardelle will leave you overlooking the soft kale and saturated oyster mushrooms that you initially ordered the dish for. Their lusciously soft and buoyant gnocchi barely need a brush of tomato sauce because the balanced flavour rupturing with each bite is enough to satisfy the palate. Once plated, Ask For Luigi's sous chefs often add a dollop of creamy, melting butter to their pasta dishes, and, in most cases, each is so luxurious this could be all it requires.
Although it would be easy to understand if they didn't want to go down this route (especially given their adherence to the traditional Italian trattoria approach), Ask For Luigi also provides gluten-free pasta. The wheatless option stands apart from other celiac-friendly pastries in that it maintains a rare palatable consistency and tastes remarkably similar to regular wheat. Moreover, the restaurant's sensational vegetarian options will leave even meat-eaters pleasantly delighted.
In the end, we discovered that Ask For Luigi's pasta is nothing like what many in our generation grew up on. It breaks thresholds and exceeds every expectation, creating pasta lovers out of reluctant epicureans. We couldn't be more thankful for the word of mouth behind the tidal wave that swept this Railtown phenomenon into our awareness––and to its own distinguished, locally-cherished existence.
A version of this article originally appeared in HAZEL NOIX on December 19th, 2017.