Ask for Luigi in Vancouver and bring on the pasta feast

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Sometimes there’s no way to convey just how satisfied you are other than using an expletive. So it was at Railtown’s Ask for Luigi during a recent dinner double date. The cursing started halfway through a round of appetizers. One the undercover eaters in our group pretty much summed it up between alternating, succulent bites of risotto balls, cauliflower, and eggplant: “This is fucking good.”

Ask for Luigi

305 Alexander Street
604-428-2544
Open for brunch Saturday and Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; lunch Wednesday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; and dinner Wednesday and Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

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Chef and co-owner J.C. Poirier (formerly of Campagnolo, Lumière, and C Restaurant, among others) has teamed up with general manager Matthew Morgenstern and the group behind Pourhouse and Pizzeria Farina. The name Ask for Luigi, according to the Italian restaurant’s website, stems from “the idea that we are always more inclined to have a better experience when…a friend sends us to see someone they know.” The restaurant occupies the adorable little spot that used to house Two Chefs and a Table. Gone is the entirely white décor of the former restaurant in favour of warm teak panelling and simple tables and chairs to match. A handful of black-and-white photos of a man’s hands are illuminated by recessed lighting underneath. The place is unfussy but comfortable. There’s no linen except for the napkins atop side plates that are on each table from the get-go: the name of the game here is traditional, family-style dining.

That sharing is encouraged is a boon to diners, because there are so many pleasing dishes on offer. The menu consists of 10 starters and six house-made pastas, as well as a couple of daily specials.

The antipasti, in particular, rocked our world. Take that aforementioned cauliflower dish. A dinner plate loaded with the fried cruciferous veggie also has crispy chickpeas, fresh mint leaves, aioli, and a heap of finely grated Parmesan. Luigi, can we talk? How much for the recipe?

Involtini translates as “little roll”. For this version, think cannelloni without the cylindrical noodle as the outer layer but rather eggplant. It’s stuffed with ricotta, Parmesan, and nutmeg; smothered in a bright tomato sauce; and topped with house-made bread crumbs baked a golden brown. This Sicilian staple is just the thing for a cold winter’s night.

“Mozzarella-filled risotto balls” is the crass English way of translating Suppli al Telefono (literally “telephone wires”), the indulgent appetizer that takes its name from the way the melted cheese stretches out when you pull the little orbs apart. You can never go wrong with deep-fried cheese, really, even more so when a hint of lemon rounds out the flavour.

Ask for Luigi prides itself on its made-in-house pasta. The dried stuff has its place, and a lot of boxed and bulk varieties are great. But the texture and flavour of the fresh noodles here make you wish you could have this variety on hand for all those last-minute weekday meals.

The standout of four pastas sampled was the pappardelle with duck ragout. Savoury and unsaucy, the dish makes the rich meat seem anything but. Similarly not overloaded in sauce is good, old-fashioned spaghetti, which, for carnivores, is the obvious match for Luigi’s meatballs—three hunks of Kettle Ridge natural beef the size of lemons that are slightly sweetened by the addition of golden raisins. Other combinations include octopus Puttanesca with tagliatelle, and spaghetti with anchovies and a little too little garlic and chilies.

Although the waiter figured we’d have leftovers—the dishes are generous—we ate almost everything; it’s hard to hold back. Dessert makes main-course restraint worthwhile, though, with dense chocolate budino, warm and moist olive-oil cake, and a vanilla-bean panna cotta with tiny almond biscotti and red-wine-poached prunes all equally mmmm-inducing. Those prunes might sound unsexy, but damn, they were good.

There’s sparkling and still mineral water on tap, as well as a rotating selection of amari (essentially herbal liqueurs), grappa, and vermouth. The lean but smartly chosen wine list is heavier on the whites and consists of selections from Europe and South America.

Be sure to start with a spritz. A refreshing blend of Aperol (made with bitter orange, gentian, and rhubarb, among other ingredients), Prosecco, and a splash of soda, this popular Italian apéritif has become my new favourite cocktail.

Appetizers range in price from $9 to $14 (the unremarkable house-made bread goes for $3), while pastas run from $15 to $19. Gluten-free noodles go for another $2.

Come hungry and let the foul words fly.

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