Reddy When You Are

Admittedly, Luigi's Bent Noodle will never win awards for its ceci con la tempia di maiale del girono dei Morti -- in fact, it doesn't even serve the dish. But then, folks in Littleton and Aurora, where the two Luigi's are located, aren't really the type to go for pig's head boiled with dried chickpeas anyway.

What they want is well-priced, family-oriented fare served with a smile -- and Luigi's delivers, even if the Italian accent isn't exactly genuine.

Mark Johnson is secure enough to admit it. "We don't do things totally authentic. We do things that we think taste great," says Johnson, a native of Denver, not Brindisi. "I never want anyone to think that we're trying to make definitive Italian dishes, but we do use some of the same ingredients and have adapted many authentic recipes."


Luigi's Bent Noodle

3055 South Parker Road, Aurora

Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday
11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday
4-10 p.m. Saturday
4-9 p.m. Sunday

8130 South University Boulevard, Littleton
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday
11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday
4-10 p.m. Saturday
4-9 p.m. Sunday

Minestrone (bowl): $3.95
Calamari fritti agliati: $5.95
Gamberi fritti: $6.95
Pizza formaggio (individual): $7.95
Pizza margherita (group): $16.95
Spaghetti with meatball: $8.95
Salsiccia lasagne: $10.95
Ravioli di formaggio: $9.95
Chicken marsala: $11.95
Fettuccine Alfredo: $10.95
Cinnamon crisp: $4.25
Baba ruma: $4.25
Tiramisu: $3.95

Today, all of the dishes coming out of Luigi's kitchen are Johnson's, however, it didn't start out that way. Back in 1986, when Johnson opened a restaurant known simply as the Bent Noodle, his buddy Kevin Taylor came on as a consultant; chef Thomas Tyrer, a Culinary Institute of the Arts grad, threw his ideas into the mix, too. The results weren't everything that Johnson had hoped for -- or that diners even desired, for that matter ("Oodles of Noodles," January 30, 1997). "To tell you the truth, I initially thought I needed someone with a culinary-school background," Johnson admits, "and I thought I needed other people to tell me how things should look and taste."

Which seems strange, because prior to starting his own eatery, Johnson had a long history in the biz. He started working at a Village Inn when he was fifteen, then did time at Bennigan's before moving on to manage the Paramount Cafe and then become part owner of the now-defunct Jimmy's Grille in Glendale. "After working in places where the bar dominated for so many years, I had gotten tired of trying to keep inebriated people happy," he says, "so when I saw that the culinary-school thing wasn't all it was cracked up to be, I decided to go back into the kitchen and see if I could start generating some different satisfaction levels with the food."

The food wasn't the only thing he changed. In 1999, when Johnson opened a second location in Littleton, he discovered that diners came through the door expecting Asian food -- so he added Luigi's to the name. Once you're inside either eatery, though, you can't mistake the Italian influence. The Littleton location features photos of celebs such as Marlon Brando with fake testimonials ("Your lasagne is to die for," Don Corleone wrote); shelves on the squash-yellow-and-exposed-brick walls overflow with old clocks, plastic flowers and Chianti baskets. During the day, this Luigi's is a nice, quiet spot for lunch; at night, the circular bar in the center, surrounded by high-backed red vinyl chairs, makes for a fun, people-watching fishbowl. The decor is busier at the Aurora restaurant, with more knickknacks and Italian-themed posters, and so is the bustling dining room, where tables are bunched together and almost always full. Both spots offer patio dining -- overlooking parking lots -- and the many wine bottles in the dining rooms serve as a good reminder that Luigi's has a wonderful wine list, filled with interesting picks from Italy (check out the 1997 Fontodi Chianti Classico) at prices the average family can afford.

When Tyrer left eight months after the new restaurant opened, Johnson started training the cooks himself. "I don't know that it could work for everybody, but I do know that things right now work really well for us," he says. "This isn't a chef-driven kitchen, and that's all there is to it. Instead we all kind of work as a team, with me leading. And sometimes I cook, but I don't always have to, because they know what I want."

What Johnson wants is a mix of contemporary Mediterranean dishes and Italian-American favorites with an emphasis on sausage -- a mildly spicy, pork-based creation that's made in-house -- as well as homemade red sauce; imported and domestic cheeses hold everything together. And the consistency of that fare is testament to Johnson's faith in the no-chef system. Our meals always came out in a timely manner, and with the exception of a couple of items that weren't quite what we'd expected, the dishes were all delicious and well executed.

The must-get was the minestrone, its salty tomato broth choking with tube pasta, kidney beans, zucchini, carrots and onions, all tender but not smooshy, all carrying the punch of that peppery sausage. A Best of Denver 2001 award winner, this boldly flavored minestrone was such a hearty brew that we felt invigorated just smelling it. The judicious use of salt was the driving force behind two more addictive starters: the calamari fritti agliati, squid encased in a golden shell of batter that was light but still made for crunchy munching, and the gamberi fritti, rock shrimp reminiscent of lobster-like langostinos (hence the dish's name) that had been lightly coated in batter and fried, then tossed in a tangy mixture of garlic-infused lemon juice. A spicy marinara came with both appetizers; the calamari brought the added bonus of a creamy, caper-studded aioli.

Luigi's cheese-gooey, sweet-sauced pizzas follow a recipe that Johnson snagged from a popular pizzeria. If I told you which one, I'd have to kill you, but there are some clues: The pies came on a medium-thin crackly crust with a hint of sweetness, which was picked up by the pizza sauce -- Luigi's marinara puréed with a little sugar and a healthy dose of oregano. The formaggio, thickly blanketed with melted parmesan, fontina, mozzarella and provolone, was our favorite pie. But the margherita was a winner, too, bearing tons of fresh basil and packing quite a garlic punch.

Without the sugar and oregano, Luigi's red sauce was all about tomatoes, cooked down and faintly bitter, without unnecessary tomato paste or an excess of herbs. Simple and thick, the red came ladled over spaghetti and a commendable meataball; more sauce was packed into a marvelous salsiccia lasagne that layered that special sausage with ricotta cheese, then topped everything with a mantle of mozzarella that had turned brown and bubbly under the broiler. Roasted red peppers had been added to the sauce for the ravioli di formaggio, round puffballs of pasta stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan.

But Luigi's isn't known just for its red-sauce dishes. The chicken marsala was creamy, mushroomy and rich, with a fork-tender breast sitting on a mound of fettuccine soaking up the sauce. Even richer was the buttery fettuccine Alfredo, which had just enough cheese for flavor, but not so much that the pasta got gummy.

Saving room for dessert was a struggle at Luigi's, but we gave it our best shot. The cinnamon crisp was really pizza dough rolled out into a circle, brushed with butter, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, then baked until crispy; cut into triangles, the wedges were perfect platforms for the accompanying vanilla ice cream. And while the baba ruma -- an Italian take on a Polish classic, currant-studded yeast cake soaked in rum -- wasn't what we expected to find even at a non-traditional Italian eatery, it was fun, and better than the soggy, sweet-but-average tiramisu.

Other than that tiramisu, the only losers at Luigi's were the salads. Although the Caesar boasted crisp romaine and crunchy, tasty croutons made from the house focaccia, the dressing was thin and lifeless, lacking in depth and overloaded with the flavor of raw garlic. And while the roast chicken insalata included well-grilled pieces of chicken and some yummy candied pecans, there was way too much in the way of greens and not enough of the promised Gorgonzola crumbles. An oily, bland roasted-shallot vinaigrette just added to the mess.

When our server at the Aurora Luigi's saw that we'd hardly touched the salad, he asked if anything was wrong. "It just wasn't what I expected," my friend said. Without missing a beat, the server replied: "Well, then, that's coming off the bill. Is there anything I can get you instead?" When she said that she'd just pick off my plate, he promised, "Your dessert is on the house, too."

Italian or not, he was speaking my language.

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