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.
Gravy and macaroni sounds delicious to many local Italian-Americans, but others may be confused hearing what they perceive as an unusual combination.
Using a splash of white wine, freshly chopped basil and garlic, and ruby red tomatoes, Michael DeLuca conjures up a pomodoro sauce that he tenderly drizzles over a heaping portion of potato gnocchi. It is one of three dishes the chef concocts during his 15-minute segment of 15 and Done, a Comcast on Demand show that promises to teach viewers how to whip up delicious dishes in minutes. The program is available on digital cable and DVD. Though working within strict time constraints, DeLuca, 46, prepares his creations with ease while cracking many a joke. The chef even finds time for a history lesson, discussing the origins of alfredo sauce as he pours it over ravioli. Before DeLuca "plates up" his third and final dish - aioli sauce and angel-hair pasta - he can't help but note that his South Philly upbringing prompts him to call the flour and water mixture "macaroni." 15 and Done, which includes a rotation of two other chefs, marks DeLuca's debut in front of the camera, but certainly not his first time in front of a stove. A passion for food runs in his family, who owns Villa DiRoma Restaurant, 936 S. Ninth St., but DeLuca's cooking ability seemed...
Although all kinds of stores have been doing business in South Philly for many years, the area is truly famous for its restaurants. Restaurants have always played an important part in the economic growth and multiethnic flavors of South Philadelphia. Because of its strong Italian heritage, South Philly is as famous as New York's Little Italy. Dante & Luigi's, 762 S. 10th St., opened its doors in 1899 and is still in business. Priori's, 10th and Wolf streets, which some people feel is the quintessential Italian family restaurant, opened during the Great Depression. Drop in for dinner and you will probably see moms, dads and kids digging into soups, salads, antipasti and pasta. Bomb Bomb Bar-B-Que Grill & Italian Restaurant, 1026 Wolf St., serves Italian fare but is really known for its award-winning barbecued ribs and secret sauce. Villa di Roma has been on Ninth Street since the 1960s. Marra's Restaurant, 1734 E. Passyunk Ave., was established in 1927, but actually opened on Christian Street two years earlier. Famous folks like Kate Smith, Tommy Dorsey, Joey Giardello, Abe ("Fish") Vigoda, Jimmy Darren and pro athletes from around the country have been regulars for the equally famous brick-oven-baked pizza. For 75 years, this well-known...