Luigi’s still here

“Are you Luigi?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m Luigi,” answered Celso Brida. His first name is pronounced with a soft “ch,” like in “cello.” His last name sounds something like “burrito,” if you say it really fast. Celso is not really Luigi, but he might as well be. A soft-spoken pie man who’s been in the business since high school, Celso is the official front for Luigi’s Pizza Parlor, which has been on Stockton Boulevard since 1953.

In 1959, the Brida family emigrated from Bolzano, an area in Northern Italy. The family bought Luigi’s in 1965. At 38 years and counting, the Bridas are its fourth and longest owners. At first, Luigi’s was run by Celso’s dad. Then Celso and his older brother, Frank, took over. Now, Frank’s son Chris works there, too.

Back in the day, Celso told us, the trains ran down Stockton Boulevard. If you look at the asphalt closely, you can see the curve in the road where the railroad tracks were paved over. The old fairgrounds were where the University of California, Davis, buildings are today. The truckers used to come down Stockton Boulevard, too, before Highway 99 came through.

“Do you still get customers from that era?” I asked Celso. “Every five hours,” he replied, “someone comes in and says, ‘You’re still here?'”

The phone rang. It could have been a man from Galt ordering a pastrami sandwich. It’s been known to happen—the pastrami is one of Luigi’s more popular non-pizza items—but the restaurant was not open yet. The dining room was dark, the benches were up, and the smells of the kitchen had yet to permeate the dining room.

The restaurant’s motif, if it can be called that, is “casual pizza parlor with something for everyone.” Video games for kids and teenagers sit at one end, and a big-screen TV for sports fans sits at the other end. In between are rows of tables and benches, which fill up with diners, even though the majority of orders are takeout. Against one wall are murals of Venice, some dating back to 1957. One mural is hidden by stacks of unused pizza boxes that reach the ceiling.

Two things drive this pizza business. One is Celso’s love for his customers. The other is the brothers’ penchant for consistency.

Consistency is the key ingredient to good pizza. (It is not, as was previously thought, the cheese.) It’s consistency, and not being afraid to give a pizza its time in the oven—with a dose of spices beforehand. Often, pizzas aren’t cooked enough or spiced enough, Celso told us. He uses black pepper, oregano and granulated garlic to finish the pies before they go into the large, gas-powered, brick oven from New York.

Every couple of weeks, Frank makes a 35-gallon vat of sauce, which goes onto just about everything—the pizzas, the spaghetti, the ravioli, the lasagna and the cannelloni. The sauce is a classic tomato sauce. It’s more tangy than sweet, with a delicately spicy undercurrent.

The brothers make the meatballs, which are like no others I’ve tasted. They are good-sized orbs of beef and pork, mixed with eggs, onion, salt, pepper and paprika. They have a more reddish hue than most, which belies the spiciness within.

Celso takes particular care with the dressings, which he makes himself: ranch, blue cheese and Thousand Island. All three are stunning for thickness, creaminess and flavor. The ranch is outstanding. All the teenagers like it on the side of their pizzas. The blue cheese, which uses the ranch as its base, is equally delicious. The Thousand Island is a less-sweet, more-complex rendition than most, with pickles, onions, black olives and Worcestershire sauce intermixed. Celso said he chops the heck out of the first three ingredients. This must be true; none of them are visible.

The pizza is classic New York: a thin crust (not too sweet) but ample enough to hold the substantial toppings. In one pizza we tried, the spicy pepperoni and the finely chopped, fresh mushrooms were generously distributed throughout. A perfect amount of cheese bound the ingredients together. Onions added a nice, sweet crunch to every bite.

One might think that after 38 years in a restaurant that is open until midnight on weekdays and until 2 a.m. on weekends, and closed only four holidays a year (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July), the brothers would be tired. Frank, 63, does plan to retire soon, but Celso, at 52, shows no signs of slowing down. On each visit, he loves to tell customers about the free onion topping, ask if they’ve tried any of the pastas and dish out a little homemade dressing—which has an avid following with the pizza clientele.

Marking these interactions is the eternal question about whether he is Luigi. “How many times have you been asked that question?” I asked Celso.

“Oh, about 200,000 times,” he said. “I could run for mayor as Luigi,” he joked.

The funny thing is he would probably get elected. After all, how many people could resist the slogan: "Luigi for Mayor! Pizza for All!"?