unforgettable italian pasta made fresh
As children, what pasta represented was a meal you could play with: it was accepted as one of the few excuses to slurp up your food at the dinner table. Our parents would buy it at the grocery store, rock hard in the package and it would take them 15 to 20 minutes to boil before they served it on a plate. Pasta was plain and simple; there was no breaking down the complexity of a sauce or an invitation to discover tenderness and texture.
To some, this is fond nostalgia that gave maturity to dishes we prepared for ourselves while our palette cultivated memory. For others, it remained insipid; bland cuisine rendering it unpalatable and undesirable. While the vegetarian half of Hazel Noix always depended on the fatty carb to fill an insatiable teenage hunger, the other half was often left craving more complexity and vigour than pasta seemed to promise. Granted, neither one of us grew up in an Italian family with a Nonna shaping tortellini by hand or teaching us the savoury balance to making a flavourful pesto. Regardless of our pasta memoir, our ears were flooded with talk about the beloved Ask For Luigi and all ends of the spectrum were keen to get in the door.
Congregated outside the standalone building at the intersection of Alexander Street and Gore Ave, guests happily converse with other visitors while they wait for the first-come-first-serve seating. You could easily mistake the corner scene for an enoteca in Torino, Genoa, or Puglia: close-as-family neighbours convening before dinner, not hungry and irritated but jovial and laidback.
The made-over establishment had shed the Two Chefs and a Table’s notorious past and shaped a new identity. Ste Marie, led by Craig Stanghetta, restyled the entire place only keeping the large windows. As Ste Marie describes: “Designing Ask for Luigi cued off the conversations we’d had with the restaurant’s co-owners about growing up with Italian grandparents--homes replete with ’70s wood panelling and boisterous family meals. Wanting to pack the room with people to create that sense of familial closeness to an almost uncomfortable degree, we filled the room with numerous small tables to feed the energy and atmosphere.”
The talented folks behind Pourhouse and Pizzeria Farina succeeded in creating a cozy, Italian restaurant where each patron felt as though they were sent over by a mutual friend. After a successful opening year, Ask for Luigi took home the 2015 Vancouver Magazine Awards for Restaurant of the Year, Best New Restaurant, Best Casual, and Best Casual Italian. They also acquired place 41 on Canada’s 100 Best in 2016. It’s the type of spot where you could bring any sort of guest: friend, family, first date, last date, acquaintance, or simply yourself.
Once brought to your seat, you're intimately tucked in with other guests and greeted by a warm, elegant, and effortlessly graceful server. Dishes are advised to be shared, so the formalities of a fine dining tasting menu are done away with. "Food arrives to the middle of the table, as it is ready," Ask For Luigi reminds their guests on their menu. But that doesn't mean other romantic rituals aren't carefully considered and encouraged. Choice apertivi precede the meal, antipasti show up first, wine pairings are highly recommended, and espresso or grappa (grape-based pomace brandy) conclude the night. Be sure to order the house-bottled Aperol Spritz Ask For Luigi is carrying, which keeps in line with the refreshing Northern Italian tradition.
The petite trattoria contains only 32 seats, and barely. In the daytime, the large windows infuse the small room with light. The wooden bistro chairs and table match the walls covered in the same retro wood panelling with little white square tiles adding warmth to the space at night and complementing the iconic pop from the checkerboard floor. The design is simplistic and without embellishment, save a series of framed hand gesture portraits and diner-style menu board. Ste Marie framed out the kitchen with the same panelling and renewed nostalgia with uses of fluted glass in the cabinetry and hanging vine plants lofting above. Glasfurd & Walker were added to the roster of creative consultants contributing a custom typeface for the slick name. At the entrance, you're kindly reminded:
1. The customer is not always right.
2. Luigi is not always right.
3. Through our differences, we create harmony.
If this restaurant had a soundtrack, we imagine that it would be Dean Martin's Mambo Italiano. But while it's an Italian restaurant almost through and through, Ask For Luigi's owner and head chef JC Poirier isn't afraid to incorporate his traditional French roots and culinary techniques into the menu, but this isn't overly glaring to West Coast Canadians and is certainly not ostentatious. Crispy cattle tripe, which Luigi serves up alongside anchovy mayonnaise, is a popular but cheap French food with roots also in post-war Britain. The albacore tuna confit is one of Poirier's most popular lunch antipasti, but confit has stronger ties to French cuisine than it does to Italian. His recipes blend seamlessly together and the Italian courses are not regionally specific.
Made in-house daily, it's not an exaggeration to say that Porier's award-winning pasta is a paradigm breaker (especially for the formerly pasta-adverse half of Hazel Noix). The tender, rich, and succulent texture of their pappardelle will leave you overlooking the soft kale and saturated oyster mushrooms that you initially ordered the dish for. Their lusciously soft and buoyant gnocchi barely need a brush of tomato sauce because the balanced flavour rupturing with each bite is enough to satisfy the palate. Once plated, Ask For Luigi's sous chefs often add a dollop of creamy, melting butter to their pasta dishes, and, in most cases, each is so luxuriant this could be all it requires.
Ask For Luigi also provides gluten-free pasta and its sensational vegetarian options leave even meat-eaters pleasantly delighted. The gluten-free option stands apart from other celiac-friendly pastries in that it maintains a rare palatable consistency and tastes remarkably similar to regular wheat. We should add that Ask for Luigi also serves a knockout brunch, but we felt it was only fair to acknowledge those praiseworthy servings in a separate and future post.
In the end, we discovered that Ask For Luigi's pasta is nothing like what many in our generation grew up on. It breaks thresholds and exceeds every expectation, creating pasta lovers out of reluctant epicureans. We couldn't be more thankful for the word of mouth behind the tidal wave that swept this Railtown phenomenon into our awareness as well as into its own distinguished and cherished existence.