There is no other place like Luigi’s in Bakersfield. It’s deservedly a legend. There is a self-published paperback history book with lots of pictures available for $24.95 in the grocery/deli and it shows you how this place is always evolving into something that almost never disappoints.
It’s nearly not recognizable from the various versions through the years that you see in the book, as well as the place I first visited in 1980, when reporter Michael Trihey (now news director at KGET TV 17) introduced me to the Tula and Luigi Show and insisted I order a half and half, with me wondering what was I going to get two halves of? A cow, a pig, a chicken, a duck?
This was just before the hit TV show "Cheers" made its debut, and once it was on the air all the old Luigi’s regulars thought the banter between Sam and Diane was based on Tula and Luigi, admittedly with Tula putting a little more salty language into the mix than Diane. TV had standards and all. Anyway in those early days I seldom remember eating anywhere other than the bar and certainly didn’t venture into the deli.
As a new generation of the family expanded the place beyond anything Luigi would’ve wanted to handle, it’s now a Lemucchi/Valpredo multigenerational enterprise more than 100 years old that is an absolute must-visit when entertaining out-of-towners. It’s distinctly Bakersfield, and I for one am glad they rejected Guy Fieri’s interest when he came to town to film restaurants for his “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” TV show. Who needs more crowds? Let’s keep it all to ourselves for now.
We made the mistake of visiting on a Saturday during the holiday weeks, when all the former residents who are desperate to get their Luigi’s fix overrun the place. It opens at 11 a.m., and somehow believing that being there when it opens will get you a seat quickly is truly delusional. Bring the patience they all seem to have in Italy, and you’ll be fine. We arrived at 11:10 and the list was already so long we weren’t seated for an hour. People eating here linger, socialize and laugh. Know what you’re getting into.
This gave us a lot of time to browse in the grocery/deli, and there were amazing finds in there, including gluten-free pastas imported from Italy, frozen pastas and sauces that we’ve bought in the past, the book I had to buy and this amazing gelato made right here in Bakersfield, Gino’s, available in those plastic twist top containers that keep out the freezer burn. We bought the salted caramel, and it was impressive, with twists of caramel sauce adding an extra punch throughout the container. We also bought some frozen pizza dough made by Lamonica’s, a family company that also happens to own and run the best pizza place in L.A., Lamonica’s NY Pizza in Westwood. If you make pizza at home, try some of this.
And during your wait for a seat you could read the book if you don’t want to buy it, a lot of it written by prominent attorney Tim Lemucchi and filled with family history interspersed with tales of Luigi’s football prowess while playing for the Drillers. There are recipes in there, some of them dating back in the family to 1908.
In the deli, I was stunned to see the elaborate old calendars they used to give to customers back in 1915 and 1916, preserved behind Plexiglas. Like Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, the place has that museum on the wall vibe that is endlessly entertaining for longtime residents. There was a news story from The Californian the day when Luigi celebrated his 74th birthday and a column from then-sports editor Larry Press about all the local sports history on the walls.
As usual, the wait was worth it, and I was glad to be writing a full column about the place for the first time since 2014. The Saturday specials are particularly amazing. I’ve yet to order the ribs (half-rack $19.95, full rack $26.95) because it looks like enough to feed a football team, and the guys next to me who did order it were part of a party of eight and they were passing the bones around to get the family’s help in finishing up. There are two excellent burgers, the Luigi ($8.50, but get the version with roasted red pepper and cheese for $9.95) and the Monte ($11.95), a two-third-pound patty of ground sirloin with double cheese and roasted red peppers.
My companion who had not been here in at least five years had to get a half and half, and I talked her into the wonderful Saturday creation, the Guinn special ($15.95) which features a double beef patty and cheese on top of the signature special, with grilled onions and toast, which our marvelous waitress Nicole brought out with the cheese, salami, carrot and pepper as our appetizer. Not sure if this is a new innovation, but I’ve never had my Pyrenees hard roll toasted before, lightly brown with butter and perfect with those onions.
I had to go with the Saturday special that is just spectacular every time, the New York steak and pasta ($24.95), and if you’ve made it this far in the column I have a useful tidbit for you: order it with the white sauce, not the meat sauce. The butter-Parmesan-garlic on the spaghetti is amazing with the perfectly seared tender beef that seems a lot better than what you’d expect to get at this price, creating a fantastic sauce of the beef juices mixing with the garlicky butter. Baste your bite in after you cut it off. Like most of the food coming out of this kitchen, it will seem like a homemade delight.
The downside: Our waitress said the steak delayed our meals, which took about an hour to arrive after ordering. At least we had a lot to talk about, and it’s rare not to see someone you know in the dining room.
My companion’s half and half (pasta and Luigi Italian beans) was everything it’s been for decades, but putting that juicy, tender ground beef patty on top is the perfect finishing touch.
We always order the Butterfinger pie ($4.95), which I thought used to have a graham cracker crust but now has a chocolate-covered biscotti crust (I sampled the biscotti in the deli while waiting for a table), and it’s fascinating. The biscotti has been crushed to balls smaller than a BB and the crust itself is very thin, but I won’t be complaining about that, leaving more peanut butter candy-spiked ice cream for us, and the pieces on top decorating the whipped cream.
There is so much we’ve raved about in the past, and I must say there’s a lot of gold found on the daily specials page: Tuesday’s prime rib sandwich, the lasagna on Wednesday (it’s available to cook at home in the deli on any day), the Italian dip sandwich made with tri-tip on Thursday or the pan-seared salmon with caramelized pecans and walnuts on the same day. The steak and ribs I wrote about above are also available on Fridays. On the regular menu I’ve been won over by the pastrami sandwich, the beef or cheese ravioli and the wild mushroom angnolotti with brown butter/sage sauce with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I have heard people tell me that regular Parmesan cheese is a poser, that real Italians would only eat the version they put on this pasta. Taste and decide for yourself.
How good of a waitress was Nicole? My companion had a glass of house cab when we were seated from our adventures in the bar, and she asked about it, and then brought her a sample of the Black Stallion cab, which she said was a good drinking wine. She was right, and like most of the crew she was so personable. A man at the table next to me was griping to his waitress that they’d arrived at 10:30 a.m. and he couldn’t believe how long it took to get seated and fed. The staffer listened patiently and tried to explain how crowded it gets on Saturdays. This is certainly not a place I’d come if I was in a hurry for anything other than conversation and laughs.
What I also noticed is how the customers come from all ages, sometimes three generations in one party, and how many tables there were of people in their 20s. I read a great quote in the book from a customer who said eating at Luigi’s was like eating in the kitchen of a big house with people you grew up with. That’s really it in a nutshell.
Luigi’s can be recommended for a fine dining experience. Just don’t tell anyone else. Especially Guy Fieri.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.