March 25, 2010 at 1:00 am

Molly Abraham Restaurant Review: Luigi's the Original - 3 stars

Luigi's the Original maintains charm with huge menu of favorites

The Gourmet Veggie is one of several pizzas on the menu at Luigi's the Original in Harrison Township, which has been open since 1953. (Kiya Gibbons / Special to The Detroit News)

Luigi's the Original is like that favorite well-worn sweater, the one you've had for years and still pull out of the closet twice a week. It's comfortable, cozy and completely unpretentious.

The knotty-pine dining room, wreathed with strings of red and green lights that add a festive feeling any time of year, has closely packed tables and a few red-padded booths along the walls.

No one seems to mind that it's virtually elbow-to-elbow when crowded, which is most of the time. And well it should be, since the venerable place has been a destination since 1953. The "new" owners, Dean Olgiata and Nancy Gogo, took over in 1993, and they are keeping up the tradition of well-prepared Italian roadhouse fare and friendly, efficient service.

Given the tight quarters, the service is amazing. The wait staff has to navigate between those closely packed tables and dodge the action at the bar as they bring the brimming plates to the diners, and they do it good naturedly.

Pick up one of the menus and the first reaction could well be: Uh-oh, how can they possibly do justice to all of these dishes? The three pages of selections range from such house specialties as whitefish rubbed with olive oil and garlic and breast of chicken over angel hair pasta to roast prime rib, New York steak and lamb chops topped with sauteed spinach, tomatoes and feta cheese.

Pastas are wonderfully garlicky and cheesy, and some are available in half portions, including linguine with meat or tomato basil sauce, meat or cheese ravioli and a simple linguine with olive oil and a choice of one item among roasted red peppers, capers, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and anchovies.

Among distinctive touches are the fresh green beans Italiano, French-cut green beans with roma tomatoes, red onions, olives, garlic and cheese, with other side-dish vegetables, such as grilled asparagus, on the daily specials list. Yes, despite the length of the menu, there are also daily specials.

Luigi's pizzas deserve all the accolades they've received -- including being named one of the best in America for the vegetarian variety by GQ magazine. My favorite, though, is the Luigi's Special, which includes cheese, pepperoni, ham, onions, green peppers and mushrooms, all fresh and vibrant atop the excellent, not too thin, not too thick bread-like crust sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds.

The same dough is used for the warm garlic/cheese bread that comes to the tables with every entree and also with salads including the notable Caesar with authentic dressing made in-house. The dressing is so good, in fact, that many patrons take a container of it to go.

The Caesar salad might offer a clue to just who the two proprietors are. They are from the family that runs two other restaurants where the Caesars are treated with respect, Mr. Paul's Chop House in Roseville and the Brewery in Clinton Township.

Luigi's the Original didn't wait for the no-smoking law to go into effect. It's been smoke-free since January, which only adds to the appeal of this well-run place.

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Lamb chops are served with sauteed spinach and tomatoes. (Kiya Gibbons / Special to The Detroit News)