Meet Me at Luigi’s

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I am a foodie trapped in a food-challenged town. Sure, new restaurants open on a fairly regular basis in Waco. New restaurants also close on a fairly regular basis. And those that survive are generally mega-chains, establishments defined by their establishmentarianism, that don’t push the taste buds too far beyond the confines of their wheelhouse. There has, admittedly, been a little movement on the food truck front lately, so there may be hope on the horizon. But still…

Case in point: Every year, the Waco Chamber of Commerce releases a publication titled Locals Love Us (and which I have not-so-lovingly dubbed Why I Hate Waco Magazine), rating local businesses by genre. This year, as in so many before, it did not fail to disappoint. In the category “Best Italian Food,” the people of Waco chose, as the second best Italian destination in town, a little place called Fazzoli’s. Which is not only not Italian; it’s barely even food.

Do you see what I’m working with here?!?

So, knowing that Luigi’s, in McGregor, Texas, is only a short fifteen minute drive from my front door comforts me greatly. In all my online wanderings, I have never found a bad review of this place (and we all know how rare that is). We have recommended it to friends, and they’ve become as addicted to it as we are. Owned and operated by a family of Kosovar immigrants, who came to the US by way of Italy, Luigi’s is heaven in the middle of nowhere.

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The meal always begins with fresh-baked rolls. So fresh that steam pours out when you break into them. I’m not generally an eater of rolls (which is, incidentally, how I bonded with my father-in-law; I gave him my roll, and proved myself worthy), but these rolls I love. I have to fight Tammy over them every time we go. She always wins. Must be genetic…

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My personal favorite is this lovely thing here: Luigi’s Favorite. They do this thing with the sauce, “cream sauce with a touch of marinara,” that’s perfection on a plate. And that goes over fettucine tossed with ham, sausage, chicken, black olives, and slightly pickled red peppers. (Purists can bite me; the pickling makes the dish, so far as I’m concerned.) If you visit Luigi’s, you gotta try this. Or, if you prefer a seafood option, there’s Tony’s Favorite, which is pretty much the same thing, just with…well…seafood: shrimp, mussels, scallops, and clams, over linguine.

There are other, equally tasty things to try, of course: Tammy’s partial to tortellini alla panna (she’s got a to-go box of it in the fridge right now, from our latest trip this past Friday night); they also make a respectable pizza, which I just recently tried for the first time, complete with wood-fired crust.

And then there’s dessert:

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Lovely cannoli with chocolate chip filling and nice, crispy shell. You can eat this with the spoon, but efficiency suggests just picking it up and munching away. Damn the decorum; full speed ahead!

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Then there’s the triple chocolate cheesecake. I have a friend (who just happens to be holding the plate in this photo) who always orders multiple slices of this one anytime we eat there together. He can do this, see, because he jogs everywhere he goes, presumably even in his sleep; if I did it, someone’d have to jog me to the emergency room. But it is good, so the indulgence is understandable.

Lately, though, there’s been competition:

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It’s like they say: like father, like daughter…

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So, next time you’re driving through central Texas, stop and sample Luigi’s wares. It’s only twenty minutes off of I-35, so what’s your excuse? The true traveler is never in too much of a hurry for a bit of a delicious detour.

Buona sorte, my friends!!!

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I Spy Pie

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There is in each of us a longing, a sense of loss, an inkling that progress has taken the past for granted. Tevyes all, pointing to the fiddlers on our roofs and wondering what’s become of tradition, wondering why it has left us behind. For my good friend Aaron, it all comes down to pie. Pie, according to him, is a lost art. Finding a good piece of pie anymore is, well, not unlike searching for the Holy Grail.

If, like Aaron, you are a fan of pie, then the K-Country II, in Clayton, Oklahoma, is the place for you. It also meshes well with my nostalgic benchmark of choice: the American small town. I have passed through so many communities, semi-abandoned ghosts of themselves only, that seeing a place like Clayton, which seems to actually be thriving–growing, even–is a rare treat. And…oh my God, the pie!

I stumbled across this hidden treasure after a lovely drive down OK-2 from Muskogee (which is, by the way, a back road for the books). One of my favorite travel pastimes is to pull into nondescript small-town eateries, the more unassuming the better, and see what I can find. Sometimes this goes sadly sideways, but at the K-Country I hit the jackpot.

On that first visit, I was the only person in the place, except for a combination of employees and other locals who had commandeered a large, round table and given over to a royal gossip session. I’m not above confessing that eavesdropping is one of the chief attractions in frequenting these establishments: you can learn more about a place from ten minutes of listening in than in ten months of formal research. And it reminds me of home: Butler, Missouri, with its Southside Cafe and its Flaming Lantern, and their gaggles of Pick-a-little-Talk-a-littles.

I sat down to a lovely plate of fried chicken livers. I know, I know–I had you right up to “chicken livers,” but don’t let that turn you away. I have strange tastes. Here’s what matters: a giant slice of heaven on a plate. I ordered their coconut meringue pie. Here’s a tip from a back road foodie: you can always tell an Italian restaurant by its meatballs, and you can always tell a small-town cafe by its pie. This is a first principle of rural gastronomy, never to be contradicted.

This sucker was almost five inches tall and barely fit on the plate. I don’t generally go for meringue, because it’s often fairly tasteless, but these folks manage to infuse a vanilla flavor that sticks with you throughout the experience. The topping is every bit as flavorful as the pie itself. And is it flavorful. I can close my eyes and taste it as I type. And I’m considering quitting my job and moving up there right now.

But the ultimate test is the return visit. A while later I dragged Tammy to the place, only to confirm what I had already suspected. That pie is awesome. Every cotton-pickin’ time. And Tammy, who is no fan of coconut, tells me the banana creme isn’t bad either. I’ll never know, because to my list of cardinal sins I have added visits to K-Country that don’t involve their coconut pie.

So, from me to you: if you want to taste what is quite possibly the best coconut pie in the world (definitely the best I’ve ever tasted), stop at the K-Country II in Clayton, OK. Feast your ears on local scuttlebutt, and feast your tastebuds on PIE!

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Happy travels, my friends!