Big Shoes to Fill
Two local Sacramento couples take over an institution
By Greg Sabin
I’m going to admit this up front. Before last month, I’d never been to Luigi’s Pizza Parlor on Stockton Boulevard. I’d been to the short-lived Midtown extension called Luigi’s Slice and Fun Garden on 20th Street, but never to the “mothership.”
As a lifelong Sacramentan, I’m beginning to find out that I was in the minority. Everyone I ask has a Luigi’s story. Whether they’re 32 or 82, the people of Sacramento have a litany of tales to tell about the pizza parlor serving Oak Park and environs for almost seven decades.
One longtime Sacramento resident told me that he and his friends “learned to drink” at Luigi’s in the 1950s. Apparently the owners didn’t look at IDs too closely, and back then drivers’ licenses didn’t have pictures on them.
A younger Luigi’s frequenter told a story of trying to get change for the jukebox as a child and having to compete for the server’s attention with an armed robber. In his recollection, everyone was calm and cool considering the situation.
Another Sacramento senior told me he loved the animatronic band above the bar at Luigi’s. He had stories of watching the players crank out a tune. However, another patron told me that the musical set up never worked from the day it was installed.
One friend told me a lovely tale of afternoons with his grandmother, staring mesmerized at “Luigi himself” tossing pizza dough in the window. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there never was a “Luigi.”
Or maybe there was a Luigi, somewhere, at some time, because the line between memory and myth is a hard one to delineate when it comes to neighborhood institutions.
This much is fact: Luigi’s has new owners. The pizza parlor, which opened its doors in 1953 and changed ownership once in the 1960s, has changed hands again. Local restaurateurs Jen and Gary Sleppy, owners of The Shack in East Sacramento, and Vanessa and Joshua Garcia, owners of All Seasons All Reasons Catering & Event Design, have joined forces to breathe new life into the local icon.
Purchasing the legendary pizza parlor from members of the Brida family, who had owned Luigi’s since 1965, the Sleppys and Garcias have maintained original recipes while adding new touches to the menu, such as scratch-made pasta dishes. Ravioli, spaghetti and lasagna are all made inhouse. Not too many restaurants in town do a scratch lasagna. And I’m not sure if you can get any others close to Luigi’s price of $13.
There are new pizzas as well, creative combinations like the Joyland, a mix of mozzarella, parmesan, roasted chicken, onions, pineapple and BBQ sauce.
The beer and wine selection is brand new with a complete lineup of whites and reds from Italy alongside a fairly extensive beer list. Beer can still be taken to go with your pizza, so no worries there.
What’s the same? Almost everything else.
The Garcias and Sleppys count themselves fortunate to have had the Bridas on hand for the first month of transition. The two couples were able to learn recipes, absorb techniques and carry on decades-old traditions, including the secret to Luigi’s ranch dressing.
For example, the pizza recipes that come from Luigi’s kitchen now are actually older than those that were used for the past few years. For some diners, any change is sacrilege. But some might not know that the pizzas—dough, sauce and cheese—are an attempt to recreate Luigi’s scratch recipes from decades ago. And they are fantastic. Upon his first bite, a pizza-loving friend said, “Well this now my favorite crust in town.”
Similarly, the house-made sausage, meatballs and pastrami are old-fashioned recipes that really sing. Whether you’re having the crumbled sausage on a pizza or in a decadent sandwich with peppers, you can taste the love that goes into the meat.
Sure, some things are different and will never be the same. An extensive overhaul of the dining room may have moved or removed some diners’ favorite pieces of mid-century kitsch. The legendary ranch dressing now comes in small ramekins instead of a room-temperature squeeze bottle. A longtime employee might not be there to greet you and share familiar jokes.
But I commend the new owners for trying to preserve many of the things that made Luigi’s special, while adding their own particular touches to make it the best they can.