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A Family Tradition 

Reliability reigns at Luigis

Did you ever have a flashback that didn't involve drugs? For me, it sometimes happens in restaurants. Last time I was in Luigi's, and I had ordered the Chicken Cacciatore. When this enormous mound of pasta and vegetables and chicken was set before me, I flashed back to my youth, when my grandmother would order that same dish when we all went out to eat. Then she would happily sit back and let me pick out all the tiny, canned button mushrooms and eat them.

But let's get back to Luigi's. This is the kind of restaurant where generations of families go, where memories are built, where you don't have to spend a fortune to eat well, and you don't have to worry about the menu getting trendy or weird. The folks at Luigi's have been in the restaurant business since 1958 and they know what they're doing. Of course, you aren't going to have the waitstaff scrawling their name on your paper tablecloth with crayons, and you don't have an open kitchen with cooks yelling "Oopah!" every time they flip a sausage. If you want cookie-cutter Italian food that's flavored by corporate design instead of a well-seasoned chef, by all means head for one of the chains on North Academy. If you want real food, come to Luigi's.

A trip to Luigi's just isn't complete for me without the Formaggio al Grecco, a fancy title for a big chunk of feta baked in a rich, spicy tomato sauce. The feta is rendered crumbly and melty, ready to be scooped up by chunks of garlic bread. The garlic bread is a little greasy, but all dinners are accompanied by a basket of wonderful plain Italian bread, equally handy for sopping up the cheese and sauce concatenation.

Even if you don't get an appetizer, all the entrees come with your choice of soup or house salad. The soup is a basic, hearty but uninspiring minestrone, and the salad is a basic blend of crisp greens, with a marinated mushroom, some onion slices and a stray slice of celery or two. The vinaigrette was exceptionally vinegary when I first tried it, but much better balanced on my second visit. If you're a bleu cheese fan, go ahead and say yes to the optional bleu cheese crumbles. Your salad will arrive under a veritable blanket of bleu cheese crumbles, so many that you may have little crumbly avalanches leaving crumbs on the table.

The entrees are hearty and several of them, thankfully, are available in a smaller portion (which is still pretty sizable). The homemade ravioli is very fine, probably my favorite in town. The large squares of homemade pasta are stuffed with a smooth, well-blended mixture of meat, cheese and spinach, with a soft, rich flavor that melts in your mouth. The covering meat sauce is thick, rich and long-simmered, as is the vegetarian red sauce, delicately flavored with red wine.

The tortellacci is another fine use of homemade pasta, folded around a cheesy filling and topped with both a red sauce and a delicate, cheesy white sauce. These two sauces blend together like magic in your mouth. You can also hardly go wrong with old favorites like homemade spaghetti or lasagna. Just be warned, the lasagna stays hot all the way through the interior, all the way through the meal. Savor it slowly, and you'll be just fine.

The Chicken Cacciatore that I mentioned earlier is a really fine rendition of the dish, and the only fault with the one I had recently was that the underlying pasta was a trifle overcooked, falling apart at the touch of the fork. But the chicken was fabulous, both a thigh and a breast deeply penetrated with that rich red sauce, surrounded by perfectly cooked carrots, onions, mushrooms, peppers and sliced olives. (By the way, the pasta wasn't enough of a deterrent to keep me from bringing the remainder home for the next day's lunch.)

If you're a big meat-eater, try the 14-ounce rib eye. It's pan seared in olive oil, topped with a thick scattering of sauted mushrooms, accompanied by a piquant little pile of sublime pickled vegetables and your choice of steamed veggies or pasta. Get the veggies! The cauliflower, summer squash and broccoli were steamed to perfection, and the steak was tender and flavorful, cooked exactly as ordered. My only request would be that a smaller steak also be made available, so those of us with lesser appetites could indulge as well.

I can't wait to go back to Luigi's, this time with the kids (yes, kid-friendly!), so I can order pizza for them and sneak a few bites for myself. I need to teach them early about sharing the best parts of your meal, so everyone can enjoy a bit of everything. My grandmother would have liked that, I think.

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