Don’t you feel more accustomed to recommend a restaurant, or dine at one, that you know from a friend to be especially good? The idea for the name of this recently opened Italian-inspired restaurant came from just that. Chef and owner Jean-Christophe Poirier had got the idea from his travels in Italy where he would be recommended to go see so-and-so for such-and-such. The theme for this Mad Men style, 60’s themed restaurant is comfort, plain and simple, from the moment you walk in the door to when you talk to the wait staff, to when you take your first bite of freshly made pasta, they really put a lot of thought behind giving diners an absolutely comforting experience.
Ask for Luigi took over a little spot that was previously operating as a different restaurant until mid last year. It is located just on the corner on Gore and Alexander. The space fits so brilliantly for this style of restaurant, as it’s reminiscent of a family run pasta place in Little Italy in the early 60’s. The interior is furnished with beautiful dark wooden furniture and cabinets, as well as black and white tiled floors. Warmth and simplicity are the the senses that are aroused once you take your seat. The gentrification in this neighbourhood in the past few years has really brought some incredible culinary diversity to Gastown/Railtown that has made this a notable stop when you’re in the area.
So what’s the big deal about fresh pasta? As chef J.C. tells me, it’s pretty much everything! Pasta is known to be simple food. To us in Vancouver, the pasta might also come secondary to the sauce or the meat on the plate. This should not be. The pasta itself should be the subject of the dish, elevating it to the next level with its flavour and texture. At Ask for Luigi, JC has more experience at making fresh pasta that many of the chefs I know in Vancouver. He is a French-Canadian with experience cooking at Toque, one of Montreal’s finest restaurants, as well as a Lumiere and C restaurant in Vancouver. Recently, he has been co-owners and chefs at Pourhouse and Pizzeria Farina as well as, of course, Ask for Luigi, his newest venture. To make pasta as refined and superb as JC, you need years of experience mixed with strong talent. He also takes his French cooking background and integrates the skills and techniques into all the dishes he creates. All the pasta at Ask for Luigi is made fresh each day. The dough is made either in the morning or the day before, then it is rolled out mid day after brunch service to provide all types of fresh pasta offerings on the traditional Italian dinner menu. JC tells me, “just like any other hand made noodle, once you taste fresh pasta, you never want to go back”.
When I say that Ask for Luigi is Italian themed or inspired, I am not only talking of the aesthetics of the restaurant, but even the service and the methods used are carried on after traditional Italian ways of operating a restaurant. For example, since this little space only seats 32 guests, they carry on an old Italian tradition of ringing a bell each time a new bottle of wine is opened, putting a star beside the open bottle on a menu board, letting guests know at this time which bottles can be bought by the glass.
But while also adding in some more modern-day conveniences such as the sparkling and distilled water taps.
Another really unique piece of Italian culture that was embedded into Ask for Luigi is a wall, and on it, from left to right, are traditional Italian hand signs. They are all done in black and white and are iconic for being used in the restaurant world in Italy. I found these to be a fantastic conversation starter and our server was incredibly friendly and excited to explain to us what they meant.
Now, on to the food! Between eight of us, we shared four appetizers.
The fried cauliflower, among one of the most popular items on the menu, is a new dish to my palate and has left me wishing I had more. The dish itself is quite large, so it’s highly recommended for sharing, much like many other dishes on the menu. The cauliflower is deep fried with chickpeas, and it is tossed afterwards with aioli, mint and parmesan cheese. This is one of the top menu items. Must try!
Suppli Al Telefono – Italianisation of the French word for ‘surprise’. This is a deep fried little bundle of risotto and cheese. Served with a salsa verde, this is probably one of the most original items I have had for an appetizer in a very long time. This is what comfort food should taste like.
Ask for Luigi is becoming famous for their meatballs. Chef JC tells me that they are unique in the way they are made as well. He uses only beef in these meatballs, so there is no combination of pork or anything else that would substitute the natural flavours of beef. He gets his cows from a farm in Kettle Valley, BC. Sustainability is such a big focus in any new restaurant,especially in Vancouver, and they have not fallen short on this at all. Without giving away too much of his secret recipe, JC did tell me that he uses pine nuts and raisins for texture, along with bread crumbs. I would recommend these to anyone who is coming here for the first time and wants to stick with something simple. These are cooked to perfection and will be one of the best meatballs you will ever have!
The last item we enjoyed for an appetizer was the oven roasted eggplant with ricotta cheese and kale. This is a new item that will be added to the official menu very soon, says JC. The cheese and eggplant work so well together and create almost a vegetarian lasagna with the eggplant replacing the pasta. This will definitely be a successful item going forward.
Onto the mains, our food comes up with care to the pass. Chef JC puts his finishing touches on our plates.
I ordered the Mushroom Risotto. It was creamy, earthy, and had 4 types of wild mushrooms incorporated into this magnificent dish. It’s a little on the heavier side but I would most definitely recommend.
Classic Spaghetti and tomato sauce. The hardest of noodles to perfect said JC. This dish really exemplifies simple authentic Italian pasta. The noodle carries this dish on its own, the sauce is there as the backup.
Pappardelle & Duck Ragu. This is a lovely rustic Italian classic. I can tell that this is one of the top pastas here at Luigi’s. The pappardelle noodle is so fresh with a real ‘snap’ when you bite into it. The duck ragu was also cooked perfectly and left you wishing for more.
The tagliatelle & mussels, the pasta that I saw JC making earlier in the day. This is a really nice, lighter alternative pasta with really fresh seafood flavours. The pasta itself reminds me of a Chinese style egg noodle, judging by its size and texture. The mussels were cooked perfectly and there was just enough on the plate of each component.
Overall, the entrees were phenomenal. I had high expectations to start with after hearing such great things about Luigi’s, but the entrees really lived up to them, and then some. If it’s your first time, I would definitely recommend their pasta, not to say that other entrees were sub par, but because after the first bite you’ll be able to taste the difference of fresh pasta. Just their texture and taste, and the way they truly are the main component of the dish, is really quite special.
The Panna Cotta at Ask for Luigi is one of the most delicate and pristine panna cotta’s I have ever tasted. The taste is exceptional being light and fluffy, combined with a berry compote and biscotti. The only downside to this would be that we found the biscotti quite tough to eat with something so completely opposite in texture. It was a little too hard to break. Perhaps smaller sized pieces could be more effective.
My favourite dessert, the Olive Oil cake. This a a very light, simple cake with deep savoury flavours that don’t leave you with an overly sweetened aftertaste. The orange slices that accompany this add a nice acidity that is soaked up into each mouthful.
Our visit to Ask for Luigi was a memorable one. It feels like the kind of place that you’ve been to time and time again with your friends. A place where people gather around to share stories over delicious comfort food and wine. I almost forgot I wasn’t eating someone’s homemade pasta because it was so fresh and made with so much care. I have zero complaints whatsoever with the food, service, and dining experience at Ask for Luigi. The only think I wish was that there was more parking and it was closer to home! But nevertheless, I will make my trips out to Gastown just to go back to have some fresh pasta made by some great folks.
Quality – 5 of 5 – Freshly made pasta? Nothing but the best!
Ingenuity – 5 of 5 – Classic italian dishes with a technical French flare
Atmosphere – 5 of 5 – 1960’s theme so well adapted with the service
Service – 5 of 5 – exceptional service, servers very personable and ready to tell you a story!
Value – 4 of 5 – You pay for the quality and the service, still on the more expensive side if you’re looking for a simple pasta meal
Overall – 4.8 of 5