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.