As I slipped a couple of quarters into the amber-glass fronted jukebox, Bing Crosby’s voice filled the air: “Sweet and lovely, sweeter than the roses in May,” he warbled.
Crosby recorded the song in 1931, and just 18 years later, Luigi’s opened in downtown Augusta. You can imagine the décor not having changed much since then. Dark and intimate, with thick carpet, crystal chandeliers and gilded candelabras, Luigi’s is like a step back in time – when you can almost see a blustering gangster and his dolled-up moll gathering with their pals at one of the long tables, or a starlet and her beau holed up in one of the shadowy booths, sipping glasses of deep red Chianti.
But today, you’d be just as likely to see government leaders happily eating plates of pasta as you would a party of children in brightly colored dresses celebrating a birthday. And the collection of images from past Masters Tournaments lining the walls also underscores the restaurant’s popularity with visitors during the first week in April.
The attraction might be its simplicity – straightforward Italian, Greek and American food, served on big plates with plenty of bread to soak up the rich sauces.
My husband, Sean, and I went on a Monday night – quiet after the bustle of the weekend crowd. After choosing a couple more songs (Chattanooga Choo Choo by Benny Goodman and Whatever Will Be, Will Be by Doris Day), we settled at our table, admired the requisite straw-wrapped bottle of Chianti, and picked up our slippery menus. The choices were many – while the menu is mostly Italian, focusing on pastas and pizza, there are also classic Greek appetizers and dishes, such as spanokopita (triangles of flaky phyllo filled with spinach and cheese) and moussaka (Greek lasagna with eggplant playing the role of the pasta noodles). American cuisine is represented in New England clam chowder, chef salad and assorted steaks.
From its vantage point above the door, a painting of founder Nicholas Ballas (the restaurant is owned and managed today by his grandson, Chuck Ballas Jr., and you can often see one of his great-granddaughters helping in the restaurant) looked on approvingly as we made our choices: spaghetti with sausage and meat sauce, and Greek chicken with rice. Sean also ordered a small Greek salad; my entree came with the same and instead of the rice, I could have also ordered fries or green beans.
The salads came in small black bowls – iceberg lettuce glistening with a tart Greek dressing, dotted with herbs, and topped by wedges of tomato, a cap of feta cheese and a single pepperoncini and black olive. These last two I handed to Sean, who puckered his mouth in appreciation as he bit into the spicy pepper. The salad itself was fresh and light, with plenty of saltines and butter served alongside to cut the tartness.
The entrees came soon after. Served on big white china plates, they were simple and unadorned – no sprigs of parsley here – just food and lots of it, with Parmesan cheese on the table if you wanted it and a big basket of warm bread.
I took a bite of Sean’s meal before digging into my own plate – the pasta was just right (perhaps not as al dente as an Italian might prefer it, but I’m not Italian), with a hearty red meat sauce studded with slices of surprisingly spicy sausage. The spice livened the sauce and made the dish much more interesting.
The Greek chicken I ordered filled a broad oval plate – nearly half a baked chicken, its skin crispy and dark with an herb rub, nestled against a mound of rice and all surrounded by a pool of rich chicken-and-lemon broth. The rice grains glistened in the delicious sauce (there was quite of lot of oil in that sauce), and if some of the chicken seemed a bit dry, a quick dip in the plentiful and flavorful broth moistened it and lent terrific flavor. In fact, I could have eaten just the rice and sauce alone and been perfectly happy.
Sean cleaned his plate, but I couldn’t finish mine and took the rest of my chicken and sauce home for a light lunch – our waitress boxed it up and wrapped the box in plastic, which I appreciated, since it meant she had made sure to give me every last drop of broth and was thoughtful enough not to let it spill in my car on the way home.
In European fashion, desserts at Luigi’s are simple – baklava, crushed baklava with ice cream, and a variety of cookies. After our large meal, we chose just one baklava – to share. It was perfectly flaky, with a tender brown filling heartbreakingly moist, sweet and nutty. That one bite (well, OK, I had two) was a perfect way to end the meal.
We paid our ticket at the counter and scooped out a few pastel butter mints for the road from the bowl at the register. As our waitress waved us on our way, the jukebox played another long-ago recorded song, from a time still present here at Luigi’s – where good food is simple, hearty and filling.
590 Broad St.,
HOURS: Monday-Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Lunch is served Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. During Masters Week (Sunday to Sunday), Luigi’s opens at 5 p.m. and closes when the last customer is served.
SECOND HELPING: (706) 722-4056, www.luigisinc.com or find them on Facebook