Luigi Cucina Italiana, italiano vero
The Casini family has been in the restaurant business since the early 1950s, operating one of the first Italian restaurants in Beirut, Romano 222. First opened on 222 Ahmad Chawki Street by Mirella Casini, it then moved to the nearby Phoenicia Street in 1966. Back then, the hotel district was home to most of Beirut’s nightlife (including Quo Vadis, the Excelsior Hotel, and Caves du Roy to name but a few). It was one of the “chic” restaurants in town, with good prices and good quality, where politicians, actors and journalists alike would savor delicious meals. In 1985, Luigi Casini’s family (Mirella’s brother) moved the restaurant to Sin-El-Fil, but in 1991, his eldest son, Sandro, decided to go back where it all started and refurbish the family restaurant on Phoenicia Street, keeping the ambiance and atmosphere just as it had always been. Then, late in 2013, Sandro opened Luigi Cucina Italiana near Saint Nicolas Church, paying homage to his father by naming his restaurant after him.
Having learned the ins and outs of Italian cuisine from his father, along with the authentic recipes that were a talking point of the capital for over 60 years, including their home-made pasta, prepared the real, Italian way, Sandro finally had his street corner restaurant, seating up to 70 people at $45 a ticket, including seats on the terrace, otherwise known as the adjoining sidewalk. Sandro aptly “roofed up” that terrace with red canopies and a “botanical” setup that is unfortunately made up of artificial plants. Additional plastic curtains form the invisible walls of that terrace, blocking out the car fumes, but, alas, also keeping in the cigarette smoke!
I would not say that chef Sandro offers exceptional Italian cuisine, but I have to admit that it is one of the few restaurants in town offering authentic Italian dishes in a friendly neighborhood setting with a very welcoming crew… it almost feels like home.
The only thing bringing it down, and a major disappointment in my humble opinion, is the lack of finesse in the presentation of most meals. I could not discern any professional layout, and thus, even though the food tastes great, the eyes do not feast as well. The portions are quite generous too, but all that doesn’t make up for the sub par presentation of the plates. It would help elevate the restaurant’s image to a level it truly deserves if that one major hurdle was to be overcome. Throughout your dinner, you will be entertained by some soft Italian music, and mesmerized by the paintings on the wall (they seemingly have an affinity for Picasso and Cubism), as well as the DIY pasta lamps adorning the ceiling. This family owned restaurant will charm you with authentic dishes, one after the other, and there are many: more than 125 items to choose from among the different selections of soup, salads, risotto, pasta, pizza meat, fish and dessert! It might be best to reduce these options by half, and offer some of them as specials every now and then, that would certainly keep us coming back to sample their different options. Some of their best dishes are the Calamari alla Plancha, served with rocket leaves and lemon zest and the Melanzane alla Parmigiana (baked perfectly), both of which are great for sharing. Just be sure to skip the bread basket; it would actually be in their best interest to change their supplier as the bread is simply not compatible with their image of a “small neighborhood bistro.” It is too basic, bland, with no fragrance and no nice, chewy crumb. It feels and tastes like mass-produced, yeasted bread that is most probably kept frozen. The bread is too commonplace, and it jars with all the little things Sandro tries to show in his cuisine. Case in point, the Crostini ai Funghi, which has a wonderful taste, but needs to be served on a smarter choice of sliced bread. As for the Insalatina di Luigi, their spiced-up version of Endive/Roquefort that includes mushrooms, rocket leaves and thin slices of parmigiana, it is a typical dish from the menu that needs work on its presentation. It lacks finesse altogether, and looks like the chef just haphazardly threw all the ingredients on the plate with no respect for the profession of culinary arts.
Other options to share would be the pizzas. We tried the Pizza Tartufo, topped with truffle cream, not too heavy, but just right, with Porcini mushrooms as well. We also tried the Pizza Diavola, and that one could definitely use a better brand of pepperoni sausage, a bit spicier would be better. The Pizza di Luigi is good as well, topped with rocket leaves, cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.
For mains, you couldn’t go wrong with any of their pastas. The Fettucini al Salmone, made fresh in-house with smoked salmon, fresh cream and dill, is a delicacy. The Linguine Gambari e Limoni is a gratifying indulgence as well: perfectly grilled shrimps with garlic, lemon zest and saffron with just a little cream just so it isn’t too dry. The Cannelloni con Ricotta e Spinaci is another gem. Or try the Risotto al Limone, with a smoked flavor perfectly paired with lemon juice and cream, cooked al dente, just perfectly. But if you’re not a pasta lover, then go for the Filetto di Luigi, coated with a creamy sauce, rich with paprika and oregano, or their quite special Abbachio alla Romana, the Italian way to serve lamb shanks.
Make sure you leave room for dessert though, and a tiny little space for a final shot of their home-made Limoncello. Pain Perdu and Tiramisu are among their favorites for dessert, but the star of the show is their Sorbetto al Limone, which, as mouth-watering as it was, was ruined by their choice of lemon to hold the sorbet, it looked more spotty-brown than yellow. How hard could it be to pick a clean, flawless fruit before you fill it with the sorbet? These are the kind of details that chef Sandro should work on to elevate his restaurant to the level Luigi justifiably deserves. After all, it is his father’s name, and he is the one who taught him all about Italian cuisine.
Location: Near Saint Nicolas Church, Achrafieh
Sound: Max Level = 95.3 dB, TWA = 59.9 dB
Air Quality: 71/100 (moderate), VOC 0.47ppm, Humidity 34%, Temp +24°C
We like: Calamari alla Plancha, Pizza Tartufo, Fettucini al Salmone, Linguine Gambari e Limoni, Risotto al Limone, Filetto di Luigi, Abbachio alla Romana, Sorbetto al Limone
Not so much: The bread basket, artificial plants, presentation of plates, way too many choices on the menu
Our suggestion: pick a table inside, away from the noise from the street and the pollution and enjoy the simplicity of the interior
Cordon COURTINE is the pen name of our undercover food critic
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