I couldn't have been more wrong.
It's a family operation, all right, but I didn't realize then that the "Luigi" on the marquee was Luigi Ferre, formerly the very highly regarded chef at Damian's in Houston. And far from being a shoestring startup, this is a fully funded, spare no expense performance worthy of George Mitchell, who did, in fact, bankroll it.
Mea culpa. My biggest regret is that since Luigi's opened in June 1997, my husband and his friends dined there so many times without me. They brought back tales of Luigi stopping tableside to passionately debate Italian cooking, conducting impromptu tours of the kitchen, or offering to cook their day's catch to order. Repeat after me: "I am an idiot."
Because now Luigi's has been discovered. On a recent Saturday evening, eager customers spilled out onto the sidewalk, this on a cool and drizzly November night when we blithely assumed the Island would be deserted. Strains of opera drifted out to the street along with the scent of garlic and olive oil. We were happy to sit at the polished wood bar, sip a cocktail and patiently wait our turn for a table.
"The people in Galveston have been wonderful," says the Sicilian-born Ferre. "It's just like a little village in Italy. I was a little scared at first when Mr. Mitchell asked me to come to Galveston. I didn't know anyone here and nobody knows me, not like in Houston. But it has worked out just fine. Every day, more and more people come. Maybe I need more space soon!"
Luigi's current space is long and narrow, with soaring high ceilings and towering windows topped with leaded glass transoms. Formerly a bank, then Nash D'Amico's place, the 120-seat main dining room has been transformed into a thoroughly Italian trattora. The walls are a glowing peach, lit with iron fixtures. Tall archways topped with graceful terra-cotta wine jars divide the bar from the dining room; the bar area is paved with small, old-fashioned black-and-white tile, while the dining room is carpeted to soften sound. This being laid-back Galveston, of course, the diners' dress comfortably runs the gamut from low-cut velvet to button-down flannel.
Once seated, customers are greeted with a basket of soft fresh bread and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil flavored with sprigs of fresh basil, rosemary and thyme floating in the green-gold depths, and a cup of garlicky eggplant caponata. Even carry-out orders are carefully packaged with enough bread and caponata to ensure the home dining experience meets Luigi's hospitable standard.
One of my favorite starters at Luigi's is the Insalata di Mare ($6.95), sort of an Italian take on ceviche. What appears to be almost a full pound of tenderly boiled fresh seafood -- chunks of crabmeat, jumbo shrimp, palm-sized scallops and toothsome rings of calamari -- is served in a cup-shaped red cabbage leaf. (A nice touch: The shrimp are halved lengthwise and the scallops split horizontally before serving.) The seafood is tossed with slivers of red onion, chopped tomatoes, pitted gray-green olives and cubes of creamy ricotta cheese in a light olive oil and lemon juice dressing that sparkles with the clean hint of mint. This salad would also make a wonderful little meal on its own, with a nice glass of white wine -- say, the Tomasi Pinot Grigio, for example -- and plenty of crusty white bread.
My husband prefers the Salsccie E Peperóne appetizer ($4.95), which is a grilled whole Italian sausage with peperonata sauce: He likes the coarsely ground pork sausage scented with fennel that is made in-house to Ferre's mother's recipe, with a red pepper and tomato sauce. He was fascinated to learn that Luigi imported a special tomato grinder from Italy to process fresh Roma tomatoes into pomodoro sauces: The machine spits out the skin and seeds to one side, while capturing the pulp and juice on the other.
There's nothing like thick, hot soup on a cold, damp night, so I heartily recommend Luigi's version of Pasta E Fagioli ($4.95) during the winter months. Although I expected to see a small pasta like tubetti with the beans, Luigi substituted potatoes on a recent outing, combined with flecks of salty pancetta and an assertive hint of garlic. The potatoes and beans begin to melt into the underlying chicken stock, and with a few judicious sprinkles of fresh-grated parmesan at the table, the result is a rich and creamy texture.
Although Ferre has a deft touch with pasta -- like the Penne Rustico ($8.95) served at lunch, with sausage, spinach and mozzarella topped with battered and deep-fried zucchini strips and a tomato cream sauce -- his veal and lamb dishes should not be overlooked. I particularly like the Agnello al Ferri ($21.95), baby lamp chops seared on all sides to order and served three to a plate. The secret of their melting tenderness is in the marinade, a mixture of red wine, balsamic vinegar and olive oil, seasoned with rosemary, mint and garlic. "I always marinate them at least overnight, and usually two nights," says Ferre. "That way, they only need just a little time on the grill."
This year the menu sports several new entrees, including the Vitello al Funghi ($17.95). "I want to give my customers something new every year," says Ferre. The exceptionally tender sauteed veal scallopine with a sundried tomato sauce is lovely, but what elevates the dish to sublime are the thick slabs of fresh porcini mushrooms. Ferre imports them flash-frozen from Italy, and they're a world away from the dried ones I've tasted; the flavor is much richer and more assertive. He also uses them to great advantage in his mushroom lasagna (Lasagna di Funghi, $13.95), paired with shiitakes and cremini and great swaths of mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.
The kitchen is very lenient when it comes to switching the side dishes, so I almost always substitute the spinach sauteed with garlic for one of the menu-specified accompaniments. The spinach is so tender without being overcooked, it's unearthly. "I poach it a little," Ferre revealed. "Just a very little, to get it started before I saute it."
Toward the end of the evening we generally drift back to the bar, partly because it's the only place where smoking is allowed, and partly because it's such a comfortable, well-stocked bar. My husband always gazes wistfully at the $125-a-glass Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac in its hand-blown Baccarat bottle, and we usually split a piece of the custardy-rich tiramisu ($5.95), layered with ladyfingers soaked in Kahlua and amaretto. Ferre's niece, who's a genius with sweets, prepares all the desserts. I sometimes veto the tiramisu in favor of the Torta de Crostata al Lamponi ($5.95), which features an almond-butter crust laced with sticky raspberry puree and topped with fresh raspberries, or the Crostata di Fico (also $5.95), which is the same rich crust wrapped around mascarpone cheese, figs and hazelnuts.
Although he's been so very busy lately, the gregarious Ferre still comes out of the kitchen to visit his guests. His enthusiasm for food is infectious, and his head always seems to be awhirl with new ideas. "I have a new room upstairs now," he announced with pride one evening. "You must come see it! You can have a wonderful private party there for a hundred of your friends!"
"What do you say we do some cooking classes? Wouldn't that be fun?" he asked another time. "Or what about something really special for New Year's Eve? Tell me, what do you think?"
He genuinely wants to know. I think: Whatever Luigi Ferre comes up with, sign me up; I'll keep coming back for more.
Luigi's Ristorante Italiano, 2328 Strand, Galveston, (409)763-6500