While most of us will fail to follow our New Year's resolutions, Bella Luna owner Harry Stephens is sticking to his plans for a fresher, more authentic approach to Italian cuisine, armed with a new, Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef who'd spent years at La Normandie (now Sotto) and in Spanish and Portuguese kitchens. Late last year, he released a revised menu chock full of genuine Italian dishes inspired by a recent, three-week trip to Italy.
The restaurant is located next to Terry's Turf Club, it's fetching art deco-style sign virtually obscured by Terry's onslaught of electrified lawn ornaments. My girlfriend and I recently stepped into the place for the first time in more than a decade; neither of us knew why it'd taken so long to return, as we'd both enjoyed our meal here. I distinctly remember Bella Luna's beef carpaccio appetizer because it had been the first time I'd tried such a preparation.
The vibe inside is a bit funky, with dark red paint and large wooden booths that make diners feel cozy and compartmentalized from others. I immediately remembered the booth seats lacking any natural back support, instead employing a long cylindrical bolster pillow for added comfort. Tables are also available for those who don't find this to their liking.
Some of the old Bella Luna menu items are still available, but there were apparently several popular items that had been removed. We'd overheard a diner ask for a dish only to be told it was not available because it was too "Americanized" for what the owner is now going for. The new "Travels in Italy" section of the menu offers a strong assortment of antipasti, "Secondi Piatti" (main course), pasta and salad dishes, several of which were familiar to us from our own visits to Italy.
We started off with a complementary amuse-bouche of salami spread on a piece of smoked mozzarella. The strong flavors did their job of sparking our appetite: a tiny morsel that packed a delicious, bold punch.
We followed this with the Grilled Eggplant Caprese off the antipasti menu ($10), with thick-cut tomatoes, large leaves of basil and a hunk of imported buffalo mozzarella atop a grilled slice of eggplant drizzled in olive oil and served with a side of thick, aged balsamic vinegar. We enjoyed particularly the mozzarella, balsamic vinegar and basil flavors, but the out-of-season tomatoes were a bit flavorless and the grilled eggplant lacked the char we were hoping for.
For entrees, I choose the Pappardelle Pasta with Wild Boar Ragu ($17), a dish that I specifically recall enjoying during our trip to Florence, Italy a decade ago. I was pleased to find that the wild boar sauce wasn't too overbearing, allowing the wide-noodled, homemade Pappardelle to shine through with its perfect al dente bite.
My girlfriend ordered the Three Cheese & Truffle Sacchetti ($21) off the specialty pasta menu, with small purse-shaped pasta filled with cheese and truffles and topped with broccoli rabe and a marsala mushroom sauce. As much as I enjoyed my Pappardelle, I was quite impressed with her pasta's intense cheese flavor and texture, which also seemed elevated thanks to the restraint shown in applying the sauce.
We ended our meal with two very pleasing cannoli. It seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of Italian restaurants manage to screw this up. Bella Luna's version is delicious, with a crispy, powdered sugar-dusted shell filled with a creamy mix of fresh ricotta and chocolate chips.
Bella Luna offers an inviting lineup of classic, authentic Italian dishes and we're encouraged by their change. We look forward to our next visit, which I hope won't take another decade.