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Dante and Luigi’s

By Phyllis Stein-Novack
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted May. 17, 2012

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Bella Vista's Dante and Luigi's, once a place where Italian immigrants lived and worked, celebrates its 113th anniversary this year.

Photo by Greg Bezanis

Opening its doors in 1899, Dante & Luigi’s is one of the oldest restaurants in the city. It was one of the first restaurants I reviewed when I became restaurant critic and I looked forward to lunching with Connie LaRussa, who, along with husband Michael, purchased Dante & Luigi’s 17 years ago.

“The secret is consistency,” Connie said. “We taste everything everyday. The marinara Michael makes today must taste exactly like the marinara he made years ago.”

Michael, who is a builder and a self-taught chef, is working on renovations to the restaurant, which should be complete by next year. The rooms are open and airy and beautiful to the eye.

As we chatted about the menu, I learned about the couple who could not be more disparate. Connie grew up in a closely knit Greek-American family in Mount Airy. Michael arrived in Philly from his native Sicily at age 9. When he was in his early teens, his mother passed away leaving Michael to cook for his siblings using his mother’s recipes.

I asked the chef to make a tasty, grilled-fish dish. He grilled a whole calamari, removed the tentacles and crisped them, and included two grilled shrimp on the plate. He drizzled on some olive oil, fresh lemon juice and a bit of chopped parsley. We also tasted plump juicy Prince Edward Island mussels prepared in Michael’s marinara.

“You have to try our gnocchi,” Connie said. “We make them with ricotta cheese rather than potatoes.”

Sandy and I preferred them boiled and topped with marinara. These little pillows melted in our mouths.

There are many Italian restaurants in Philly, but visitors flock to Dante and Luigi's.

“As soon as tourists get into a taxi at the airport, the driver asks them what kind of food they like,” she said. “If they say Italian, the drivers recommend Dante & Luigi’s.”

Our server suggested we needed a bit of crunch and brought out a Caesar salad for us to share. The croutons were buttery and obviously homemade. The salad was not a bit over dressed. All it required was some freshly ground black pepper.

A menu probably from the late-’40s or early-’50s hangs in the foyer of the restaurant.

“Several years ago we decided to roll back our prices to those on the [older] menu,” she said. “We did this for two months over the summer. It was a nightmare,” she said as she burst out laughing throwing her arms up in the air. “Everyone wanted this menu. A party of four or five ended up paying about $20 for dinner.”

For me, the test of an Italian restaurant is how its chefs prepare lasagna. I go on the record and proclaim Dante & Luigi’s to be the finest in town.

The thin sheets of fresh homemade pasta is piled high and layered with a rich tasty Bolognese sauce, fresh creamy ricotta cheese and béchamel. It arrived piping hot from the oven.

After one bite, Sandy and I were transported to Michael’s mother’s kitchen.

“We have to save a piece for Edward,” I said. “He is going to love this.”

Connie and I talked about chefs and she said she has four: Three men in their 50s or 60s and Gina, whom the couple inherited when they bought Dante & Luigi’s.

“We taught her how to bake, so you must try her desserts,” Connie said.

I always prefer ricotta cheesecake to its New York-style cousin. This one was light, airy and not a bit overly sweet. I think the addition of lemon juice and a bit of grated lemon zest would be terrific. Gina’s tiramisu was fashioned with crispy imported lady fingers soaked in strong espresso and layered with mascarpone. It was a big portion as was the cheesecake. You can guess what Edward had for dessert after he finished the lasagna.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. Anonymous said... on May 18, 2012 at 07:54AM

“I haven't been to D&L for a really long time, this makes me want to go back! I recall the food being delicious.”

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2. Anonymous said... on May 18, 2012 at 01:59PM

“So how many tips of the toque did they get?”

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3. PhyllisPhan said... on May 18, 2012 at 05:48PM

“I think it's time for Phyliss to go write somewhere else. If she was an anonymous dinner guest, like a restaurant review should be, and an average customer, her experience would be completely different. Her reviews don't entice me to go eat anywhere. Quite the opposite. As an Italian in South Philly, I wouldn't even go to D and L.”

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4. Skeptic said... on May 18, 2012 at 08:23PM

“"As an Itialian in South Philly, I wouldn't even go to D & L."

Why, PhyllisPhan? What turns you off about it? When were you last there?”

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5. Phyllis Stein-Novack said... on May 19, 2012 at 09:34AM

“Dear Readers:

For our anniversary issue, my editor and I decided to select a very old restaurant and feature it rather than having me write a restaurant review. This is NOT a restaurant review. It is an interview with the owner.

When I review a restaurant, no one knows who I am. A reservation is made in a friend's name or relative's name.”

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6. Skeptic said... on May 19, 2012 at 11:08AM

“This article was located under the category Restaurant Reviews. There was no disclaimer.

But that's OK. I have finally found a circumstance where I can use the word: disingenuous. Phyllis, your response #5 was disingenuous. Not lying, not ill-mannered, not malicious. Just disingenuous. Here's the dictionary definition: lacking in candor; also : giving a false appearance of simple frankness : calculating”

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7. PhyllisPhan said... on May 19, 2012 at 08:46PM

“Mr. Skeptic, I almost suspected you were Edward in disguise! Please, be my guest, go to D and L. Pay their prices for no view or parking.Take comfort in knowing the building has great bones and you'll need a police escort to go to your car after you eat. I'll eat MY Italian food at home, where I'll have Mom cook whatever Dad and I want. At least Phyliss reviewed a spot that actually gets the Review delivered there! Feel free to say what you want about a 40 year old living with his parents in their back bedroom. And that is genuous!!! Ha Ha to borrow the root from your word! And Mom does the laundry better than ANY Chinese laundromat.”

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