When talking about the finest food and drink, sometimes age means everything. An old wine, barrel-aged spirit, moldy wheel of cheese in a cellar, or some long-fermented foodstuff. Or, we could just be talking about the number of years an eatery has endured, surviving through wars, recessions, pandemics or just fickle food trends.
Colorado Springs has its fair share of offerings from beloved oldies, from pizza at Fargo’s or Poor Richard’s to burritos at Bean Bandit, German deli goods from Wimberger’s Old World Bakery & Delicatessen, breakfast at Adam’s Mountain Café, dinner at Margarita at Pine Creek, and on and on. They’ve been around since I got here in the late ’90s, and each holds a unique story and place in locals’ hearts. But transplants to the area in the past couple decades may not know that there are other Springs establishments — icons, really — that predate these popular spots, by decades! In an effort to dig (and dine) as far back as possible to glean a taste of the town through its legacy institutions, this week I focus on two of our four oldest spots, which both happen to be Italian. I talk with the descendants of the original founders, all still actively engaged in their family businesses. And I learn what makes them so special and iconic. Next week, I’ll present two more golden oldies.
947 S. Tejon St., 719-632-7339, luigiscoloradosprings.com
Here’s a rare statement, not just for the restaurant world, but universally: “Not changing is the key to our survival.”
That’s on Luigi’s website. On their menu’s history section, it states “nothing is contrived or pretentious.” And when I get to talking with co-owner Gina Costley — daughter to founders Leo and Anne Cervetti — she makes it clear that their family’s food is “basic ingredients, nothing fancy — like grandma would make.”
It’s as if they’re trying to play everything down: this classic, never-changing menu of Chicago-style, Italian-American fare, to ensure customers know that it’s bare-bones pure and humble, no frills. Which is cool, except that I see right through it, and the throwback nature of this local gem is the frill. We’re talking about Colorado Springs’ oldest restaurant (“continuously family owned and operated,” they clarify), dating back to 1958. In April of 2023, it will turn 65 years old.
Leo worked into his 80s, “and he loved it,” says Gina, noting he’d even come in on his off days to hang out with his loyal clients. Anne is now 92 “and still a pistol,” says Gina, who tells us her mom will visit occasionally to “sit at the bar and hold court.”
Gina’s first job, at age 13, was making pizza at the eatery. (She’ll still jump in to help out.) Aside from a stint in the early ’80s attending college then living in Texas, she’s been around the whole time. In 1998 she and her sister bought out their parents in the business, then she and her husband Les took sole ownership in 2004, after the family had briefly put the establishment on the market. (Can we all just pause to breathe a collective sigh of relief that they changed their minds before a buyer was found?)
“I was the one who’d said I would never do it,” she tells me, before saying something so poignant that it could be in a movie script: “It’s hard to work someone else’s dream as if it’s your own.”
So, she hasn’t. “We have worked it as a business,” she says. “But of course we appreciate all the history and hard work and generations of people that have come through here.”
And the smartest business decision they’ve made is to not mess with what’s worked for decades and earned its way into countless locals’ hearts. Leo taught Les how to do everything, and he remains the prep cook today after 30 years. (Looks like Leo taught him how to love it, too.) Gina says they have two line cooks who have been with them 30 years as well. (Anyone in the industry who understands the significance of that, I want you to pause and really let it sink in. For those outside the industry, just know it’s unheard of, freakish, crazy, like a verified Sasquatch sighting.)
I learn another fun fact I’m sure many longtime locals will enjoy: Gina says her dad Leo and Del Biondi from Roman Villa (which opened in 1959, a year after Luigi’s; see below) were good friends back in the day; they’d loan each other products when needed and help each other out. She explains that back then, this south end of Tejon Street and Roman Villa’s north end of Nevada Avenue were pretty much the edges of town, “so there was no sense of competition.” (Today’s urban sprawl makes that hard to comprehend.) Gina and Del’s daughter Carla Biondi are also friends, who correspond to this day. Damn if I don’t have goosebumps just relaying this whole, wholesome story.
Which brings me to my visit, where I get to taste and savor the legacy’s foundational foodstuffs. I learn that technically the menu has undergone minor changes, mostly around the COVID pandemic. But that was to eliminate some dishes like steak and sandwiches in the name of streamlining for survival, allowing full focus on the pizzas and pastas. (“We’ve had ups and downs over the years,” Gina concedes.) They also reduced the number of tables, scaling down (which ironically scaled up revenue in the end), and reduced hours slightly. (They’re now open 5-8:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.)
We have to order a bottle of the Straccali Chianti (an easy complement to our meal) because of the straw-booted bottle it comes in — meaning we receive markers at meal’s end to personalize our bottle so it can hang among the hundreds on the classic, wood-paneled walls. Yeah, the dated, warm-lit decor hasn’t changed in all these years either, and that’s the way everyone prefers it.
The homemade pastas are a wise go-to, and I order the tortellacci with housemade Italian sausage. Given the huge portion and the fact that I take leftovers, it’s more than fairly priced at $18.25. Oh, and it’s splendid. They stuff Pecorino Romano and cream cheese inside the pinched dumpling-shaped, super soft (lovely) dough along with spinach. Then comes a topping of the signature meat sauce, a vibrant tomato sauce with plenty of backbone, and the house besciamella (bechamel sauce), for a rich, creamy cap laced with a hint of nutmeg that plays nicely off the sausage’s subtle zinginess. To state the obvious, here’s a dish that holds up through the decades; it’s timeless, perfect as it is in this sincere form.
To try the house meatballs, we act like kids and get the classic of classics: spaghetti and meatballs, a full portion for $14.25. (Appreciate that in these inflationary times.) The same meat sauce tastes even brighter when aside from the bechamel and welcomes the added herbal essence of the meatball.
Looking ahead to Luigi’s future, Gina says there’s still plans for the railroad to reconstruct the aging bridge just north of their building, which will require a new track to be laid directly where the restaurant sits. So eminent domain may be used in 2025, according to her, to close Luigi’s. She says at that point, they’ll either retire the legacy, or potentially sell the business, but nothing’s been decided. So make the next couple years of eating count if you want to get your fill for a lifetime.
3005 N. Nevada Ave., 719-635-1806, romanvillaonline.com
To call Roman Villa a beloved throwback is only to begin describing the iconic Springs spot, open since 1959. The always-busy small dining room (which seats around 50, packed snug) feels dated, but that’s the way we like it and we wouldn’t change a thing. It’s got wood panel walls and a low ceiling, warm lighting and ample, alluring Italian food smells filling the air.
After a to-go visit one frigid December night, I speak to co-owner Amber Shaffer, the fourth-generation Biondi family member who operates the spot; her niece now working at the restaurant represents gen five — so Shaffer says it’s certainly possible that Roman Villa could be standing decades from now. But she’s honest when she says sometimes she has a love/hate relationship with her work, which “feels like more a grind than in the past,” particularly due to how COVID disrupted everything, affecting service, labor and more. But “this is what I do,” she says in acceptance of the legacy. “I’m 43, I need to work, I still consider myself young.” And in talking with her, it’s clear to me that she’s proud they stand out as a landmark mom-and-pop place in the increasingly developed area around the Nevada Avenue and Fillmore Street intersection. (They’re currently open only 4 to 8 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays.)
For my take-out, I order a 10-inch homemade-sausage pizza with fresh garlic added, plus a plate of homemade ravioli with the house tomato sauce. My car smells amazing on the way home, like it’s hard not to open the box and risk a mess down my shirt. I ask Shaffer to describe Roman Villa’s pizza style for me, as it’s somewhat if not fully unique to town. She says it’s not New York-style thin, but not Chicago-style deep either, somewhere in the middle with a crunchy-bottomed dough (made daily) with a bit of chew. They serve it pie-cut by default, but are happy to slice it tavern-style into squares by request, for the Chicagoans who frequent the spot.
I definitely notice the soft chewiness, and a more dense, less airy core, and there’s not prominent crust with any significant crunch; sauce and dressing go right to the edges. The sauce starts with a #10 tomato can, “which we jazz up to our liking,” she says. Mozzarella cheese sweats a finger-coating oil, and the sausage highlights the affair. There’s a perfect, subtle amount of fennel in its finish, with a little oregano, garlic and crushed red pepper for a faint spicy note.
The ravioli are the eatery’s most labor-intensive item, says Shaffer. They first cook pork roast and turkey breast over the course of a day, then debone it and send the meat through a grinder into a large mixing bowl. There, they mix in spices and a trio of cheeses: ricotta, Romano and cream cheese. All that’s packed into homemade egg noodle dough, formed about palm-size. They’re soft under the fork and really creamy on the whole, contrasted by an excellent house tomato sauce. This family recipe starts with the carrot-onion-celery trinity for a classic base, which goes through a buffalo chopper for a super fine grind, which gets cooked down and thickened into a sauce; the carrot sugars alone contribute the sweetness, and balance the tomato acidity for a rich flavor, with oregano leading a bright herbal essence.
While I eat, I’m reminded of an Italian eatery back home that we grew up with, where everyone in the 1980s would go for pizza and arcade games. It’s still standing today, too, dated in its own way, but perfect just like it is. I imagine a lot of towns have their go-to vintage Italian spot, where real food’s still made the hard way and there’s a family history and local tradition and authenticity that few if any modern eateries, no matter how good they are, can rival. Nostalgia isn’t everything though, because you don’t make it this many years in business if the flavor isn’t there to back it up.