By Marene Gustin
Photos by Luigi and Martha Ferre
Audley is an odd little street, running as it does from West Alabama down to the Southwest Freeway. Mostly small businesses, near a ’70s-era condo complex. If you don’t turn onto Audley from West Alabama, you might never notice that inside a square little building behind Lamar High School is the most charming little Italian family restaurant.
As you step inside, you are transported to another world: high ceilings with wooden beams, textured walls, and Renaissance-style paintings. A long wooden bar lines one side of the space, and colorful Italian ceramics are scattered almost everywhere.
“Many years ago,” says chef/owner Luigi Ferre, “I was in a little town near Florence and saw this little family restaurant. That is what I wanted to create here.”
And Luigi’s is, in fact, a family restaurant. Ferre can always be found in the kitchen, or occasionally stopping by tables to say Grazie. Wife Martha works the front of house, and both grown children work at the restaurant as well.
Ferre was born and raised in Italy and learned to cook from parents who relished the traditional Italian fare made from fresh ingredients. After some culinary training in his homeland, Ferre came to Houston where his aunt and some cousins were living. He wound up in the kitchen of Damian’s Cucina Italiana, working his way up from line cook to chef before helping start the original Carrabba’s.
It was then that George Mitchell asked him to go to Galveston Island and open a restaurant there. For 17 years he ran the first incarnation of Luigi’s in Galveston, racking up a devoted following before his family decided that they wanted to come back to Houston. So, two years ago he opened this Upper Kirby location in a building that formerly housed Rosemary’s Catering.
The menu is as comfortable and satisfying as the décor. There are some classic northern dishes, a Black Hills Ranch Ossobuco, a wonderful grilled salmon topped with crabmeat, and even a five-course tasting menu created and cooked by the chef himself for dinner. But don’t think that this is a fancy Italian restaurant—everything here is very comfortable, from the chairs to the portion sizes.
At lunch, a simple glass of vino, a Caesar salad, a pepper soup with house-made sausages, or a personal-size pizza offer sustenance—although larger appetites might want to fill up on the lemony chicken picatta with a side of pasta. (It’s the house-made pastas that Ferre himself prefers for lunch.)
“I’m in the kitchen all the time,” he says. “I love to cook and drink a little wine, and I make everything by hand, from the sauces to the pastas. I like to be creative—the other day I made a linguini with smoked salmon on top.”
And dessert. He also likes dessert.
“Every week, I like to try new desserts. I make a cannoli, or [you could] try a raspberry tart,” he says. “It’s a very Italian thing,” he says with a smile.
Luigi’s Cucina Italiana
3030 Audley St.
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.