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A pizza wizard in Albuquerque: Luigi’s huge daily buffet complements a diverse menu of favorites

The Green Chile Chicken Lasagna with a side of bread at Luigi’s Ristorante & Pizzeria. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Green Chile Chicken Lasagna with a side of bread at Luigi’s Ristorante & Pizzeria. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“A bottle of red, a bottle of white

Whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight

I’ll meet you anytime you want

In our Italian restaurant” sings Billy Joel in his epic ballad of nostalgia and disillusionment sprinkled with remnants of hope.

That restaurant could be Luigi’s Ristorante & Pizzeria, a comfortably well-worn North Valley family establishment that just celebrated its 20th year. There, gondoliers ply the Grand Canal and Roman gods cavort across endearingly kitschy murals, Sinatra croons and there really is a Luigi, one Luigi Napolitano, who descends from a line of Italian restaurateurs stretching back to New York and across the sea to Italy.

He was working as chef at Mimmo’s on the West Side when his mother, Tina, lost her job. They decided to realize their dream and opened their own place, with a commitment to making everything – bread, pizza dough, sauces, salad dressings, meatballs and desserts – from scratch. “We use nothing canned,” Luigi emphasizes, “and all vegetables are cut fresh daily.” The only mystery about that cooking style is how he manages to serve his daily all-you-can-eat buffet at the modest price of $9.95 for lunch and $10.95 for dinner (it’s $6.95 for children.)

This buffet is no joke. It is a cornucopia of not only pizza, soup and salad, but also three kinds of lasagna, including the famous green chile chicken, baked ziti, chicken Florentine, chicken cacciatore, six kinds of sauce, six varieties of pasta cooked perfectly to order, meatballs, sausage, and desserts like his strawberry-infused New York cheesecake, tiramisu and carrot cake.

With all this, don’t expect gourmet fare. Rather, Luigi’s serves good homemade Italian food that your Italian grandmother, if you had one, would spend all day in the kitchen concocting.

But the best thing about Luigi’s is his Signature Pizza ($14.95) with its deep-fried crust. Don’t think of this as a pizza-sopaipilla crossover.

After he fries it, into the stone-bottomed hearth oven goes the dough to bake, graced with the right amount of red sauce embellished with artichokes, prosciutto and cheese. The resulting crisp, charred crust and salty-savory taste combination mellowed with molten cheese marks this man as a pizza wizard.

If you’d prefer to order off the menu, you’ll find a bouquet of pasta offerings plus a diverse selection of classic Italian veal, chicken and seafood dishes. Entrees come with a choice of soup or salad and include pasta with piquant marinara or meat sauce, though other sauces may be had on request.

The antipasti misti ($9.75) is a generous platter of Italian cold cuts. Pizzas, subs and burgers – Luigi has them all, plus draft beer and wine. And, yes, a popular selection is the carne adovada pizza, for those who insist on having it all.

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