Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Losing Luigi

First, a note on where I've been. Last June, my son finally arrived in Hawai'i permanently, after the death of his mother. I've been busy learning how to be a full-time father and trying to earn enough to feed two mouths, so I've had to concentrate on writing that pays -- which this blog, frankly, doesn't. Someday I may get back to this, perhaps on a different platform that's friendlier to local advertising. But I'd rather write and let someone else sell the ads. Those who want notifications when I have a new article out can still follow me on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the Big Island Weekly didn't have room to run the following little tribute, so I'm posting it here.

I missed Louis "Luigi" Lichtenstein's memorial service because of deadlines. I feel very sorry about that. Luigi deserves remembering and thinking about.

I wasn't that close to Luigi; I wrote a couple of articles about his restaurant, Aloha Luigi's, and about the artists he patronized, and I ate a lot of Sicilian slice and Caesar salad specials, but that was about the extent of our relationship. But Luigi always made me feel like a friend. He knew me by name and greeted me with a friendly comment and a big smile whenever he saw me at the restaurant, and there was nothing false about that smile and greeting. Luigi radiated his own special Brooklyn style of aloha; he seemed genuinely happy to see people enjoying themselves in his restaurant.

And we customers had good reason to be happy. For about the price of a combo at McDonalds or Jack in the Box, we could enjoy a genuinely tasty lunch in a restaurant that oozed homegrown charm, with its bright hand-painted walls, its ceiling painted like a sky with puffball clouds, and it rotating exhibits by local artists -- or in recent years, we could dine al fresco in his lush garden court. I suppose the food was, technically, "fast food" — much of it was served on plastic foam plates or in paper-lined baskets, and we bussed our own dishes — but it didn't taste "fast"; I'd put some of Luigi's pasta dishes up against those served in restaurants that charge three or four times as much, and that Caesar salad was without peer. Luigi obviously did what he did because he loved to do it, and it showed.

That's the essence of local dining at its best: a chef opening his own place so he or she can do what he or she loves to do. In recent years, downtown Hilo, like Pahoa before it, has bloomed with such establishments: Akmals, Chiang Mai, Le Magic Pan, the Surf Break, and numerous others, where chefs have taken advantage of the relatively low property values to create their own hand-made visions of what a restaurant should be. Those restaurants are win-win-win-wins for the community; the owners get to live their dreams, downtown's empty spaces get filled, more money stays in the local economy, and we local consumers get to eat lovely, tasty food at reasonable prices.

I admit, as a poor freelancer with a son to feed, I sometimes patronize fast food franchises; even Luigi's doesn't have a dollar menu. But more and more, I'm discovering, there's a good alternative within walking distance. In Kea'au, for instance, I needed lunch the other day after a doctor's appointment. I considered Micky D's, but decided to walk across the street to the farmer's market. There I discovered a lovely, polite young lady who'd set up a Vietnamese food stand; I got an absolutely ono plate of fragrant key lime chicken and vermicelli noodles served on a bed of lettuce for about $6.50, and dined to the music of some local musicians who were playing at the market. It was, in short, a fine dining experience, even though I sat at a table made from a cable spool. I'll be back there again. And I hope that young lady eventually follows in Luigi's footsteps, finds an inexpensive property, renovates it and opens her own restaurant.

My understanding is that Luigi's, meanwhile, will remain open under its former sous chef, Thomas Aiau, who's absorbed Luigi's brand of aloha as well as his recipes. I'm very glad. Luigi may be gone, but his Caesar salad and his good will live on.


Anonymous said...

Very nice, Alan. I love Luigi's Caesar salad too and totally agree with you about the good local eateries.We need more of them and far less loco moco!
Barb Fahs

Sonia said...

I was shocked to hear Louis (Luigi) had died. My son and I were driving to Captain Cook for the avocado festival and Anthony was reading the paper aloud while I drove. Needless to say I was devastated after hearing it.

I too met Luigi when I wrote a review about aloha cluigi for the old, now defunct Hawaii Island Journal.

Preliminary to the review, we ate there a few times and afterwards made it a point to visit once in a while and grab a nice lunch there while seating in the patio and enjoying the peace while the hussle and bustle of Hilo passed by.

I was so pleased when he told me he had been to the mainland to learn how to make ice creams and gelatos and that they would be serving them soon.

Happy to hear that Thomas is keeping the place open, and he also projects the feeling of aloha Luigi was so generous with....but Luigi will be forever missed.

John Rozett said...

Nicely put Alan! Luigi was an original! A sincere vivacious genuine free spirit. The cultural importance of fostering individuality often gets lost in this world dominated by corporate culture. The homogenization of choices, the dominance of iconic caricaturish images of the "faces of commerce" (Ronald McDonald et al) over real artistic ,creative and inspirational characters such as Luigi in the eyes of emerging generations is a tragedy of immense proportions in our modern society. I, as you, also seek the owner/operator businesses. Those who pour their heart and soul into their chosen avocation so much so that the pervasive ambiance is one of art come alive , simple furnishings not diminishing the true richness and luxury of the sharing of one's unbridled interpretations of their life's work. Luigi will be missed, but it's heartening to know that someone is carrying the inspiration of his work on. Evolving it into both the homage of a mentor passed and the new interpretations gleaned from the seeds that mentor planted.
Long Live Aloha Luigi's !
John Rozett

Devany said...

It was a sad day for Hilo. Just ran across your blog and this was the first post on it. I did not know Luigi, though I have eaten there a few times. My condolences for your loss.