Maccia, Loperfido and Falco — these are the family surnames of my girlfriend and frequent dining companion, making her an essential guide for dinner at Bella Luna, a "traditional Italian restaurant in a non-traditional setting."
Residing in the former A'meretta restaurant in the Columbia-Tusculum/ Linwood neighborhoods, Bella Luna preserves the bold décor of leopard print rugs and sunny Tuscan hues. Red and orange booths, yellow walls and blue crushed-velvet curtains saturate the intimate interior, while black-and-white vintage photos of the proprietor's Italian ancestry add familia to the funk. The comfortable restaurant feels like a neighborhood haunt where the host knows your name and greets you with a glass of Chianti, and indeed owner Harry Stephens (don't let the Anglo name concern you, he's from a large Italian family in upstate New York) makes his way from table to table the entire evening with embraces of "Paisan!"
My Bella guest is an East Coast Italian who grew up on "exceptional veal dishes," seafood and "ronis" (as pasta was called) in her family's up-casual restaurant, so I consider her an expert by default and let her suggest most of meal for the evening.
The menu is a nice combination of traditional dishes — the foundations of Italian cuisine such as Veal Marsala and Chicken Parmigiana — and more nouveau-style dishes such as a fancy grilled-cheese sandwich of fresh buffalo mozzarella fried between two slices of ciabatta.
We start with an antipasti (appetizer) to share: Rollantini di Melanzane e Zucchini ($5.50). "Grilled slices of eggplant and zucchini rolled together, oven roasted, baked under cheese and accompanied by balsamic tomatoes" sounds delicious and would have been more so had the eggplant not been dry from over-preparation and perhaps balanced by a bit more of the "cheese" (a barely-there sprinkling of mozzarella) and the tasty balsamic tomato relish.
Insalata Bella Luna ($6) was wonderful, if not exactly the mixture of greens advertised on the menu. Romaine crowned with dried figs, roasted red peppers, Gorgonzola cheese and honey balsamic vinaigrette was perfectly sweet and tart, but we would have liked the addition of spinach, arugula and radicchio promised on the menu.
Entrées were served two bites into our salad; informed by the runner who delivered them that there was a large wedding party in the other room about to order, so the kitchen was "trying to get all other orders out right away." Despite the message that our service was only slightly less important than the bigger party, we remained flexible and cheerful, glad to have our dinner warm and in front of us than delayed by the impending crush.
A note about the service at Bella Luna: Minus this one exception, we were well taken care of by our server, who was polished and affable, even patiently dispensing sage advice about relationships when, at one point, we besieged him with questions regarding the curiosities of his gender. Thank you, Mark, and we're seriously considering the women-live-together/men-just-visit theory.
I wish I could say that the main courses were as memorable as Mark's service and advice. My Bella companion was so excited to find Braciola ($15) — a specialty of her Nona's and uncommon around this area — featured on the menu, but she was somewhat disappointed by its flavor and presentation. Braciola literally means "roulade" — most often a cheaper cut of beef such as flank (Bella Luna serves choice sirloin) wrapped around cheese, garlic and herbs.
Although the menu states a "four cheese blend," we could only taste one — the American-Italian fill of mozzarella — which left it rather bland and lacking the tang an aged Pecorino Romano or parmesan would give it. Despite the wan filling, she was content with it, acknowledging that it's hard for most chefs to compare with her grandmother's talents.
If the Braciola was moderately bland, the Linguini alla Scampi ($15) was dreadfully so, with an appropriate hint of wine but no discernable garlic, "fresh herbs" or any sort of seasoning — and that's the best part of it. Baptized in at least a third cup of melted butter — we were pouring it into the empty salad bowl — the linguini was finished with tough, dry, overcooked shrimp. We tried several bites but couldn't finish it. In today's restaurant kitchens, this one should embarrass a decent chef.
Our server was concerned and gracious offering us dessert and coffee on the house, which we gladly accepted. Torte di Pane ($4.25) is a lovely light bread pudding — more of a moist bread than the custardy style generally referred to — served warm and perfect to share with our coffees.
Bella Luna certainly is a lively atmosphere with good service and a benevolent host, so let's hope that some attention is given to the food's quality, presentation and consistency. We'd like to see Bella's moon rise. ©
Go: 4632 Eastern Ave., Linwood
Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 4:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday (reservations accepted)
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood, a few vegetarian items (fettuccini alfredo, cheese ravioli) plus four salads and three appetizers