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Half-Moon Designs, Pizzas That Shine: Mezzaluna

August 23, 1990|MAX JACOBSON

Flavor of the Month among the new Italian imports is Mezzaluna, a New York franchise with Beverly Hills connections.

It seems that Aldo Bozzi, owner of the original Mezzaluna in New York, has franchises in Aspen and Beverly Hills in conjunction with a couple of Lebanese partners. Now along comes Bozzi's friend and countryman, Romano Molfetta, who disclaims affiliation with the Aspen and Beverly Hills locations but insists he is running an offshoot of the main restaurant in The Apple itself. Very confusing.

Especially when it becomes obvious that this location in Corona del Mar is just like the other three: a lively bar, a cafe with designer trimmings and a slightly specious theme. All the restaurants are dominated by a colorful series of framed prints done by various artists and illustrators which pay homage to the mezzaluna, or half-moon in Italian.

This is a play on words. Mezzaluna means not only a fraction of the lunar disk but, more colloquially, a crescent-shaped chopper with wooden handles on each end, an indispensable tool for any Italian housewife. The restaurant has gone off the deep end a bit with this theme, even going so far as to put smiling half moon logos on all the menus and plates. It's as if the "have a nice day" thing had gone Mediterranean or something. Sheesh.

Despite the trumped-up theme, though, I like the place. I wish I could say Molfetta had a resounding success on his hands, in fact, but up to now his reception has been rather lukewarm. Oh, there are certainly enthusiastic swarms of young Italians coming for the authentic pastas, not to mention a mysterious looking late night crowd wearing the latest fashions from Soho and Milan. But the locals just don't seem to get it.

I can guess why. In Mezzaluna's noisy main dining room, you sit at marble-topped tables too close together for comfort, shifting about on wooden chairs that feel harder with each passing course. Downstairs, in a cozy, semiprivate room, you watch foccaccia and pizzas being shoveled in and out of a yellow tile oven while sitting at long tables that look almost medieval in the ochre light.

In short, there's plenty of style but very little comfort in this restaurant. And this is certainly not Soho. Or Milan.

But the menu is attractive enough, providing your taste runs to designer pizzas, Italian dishes you need a Berlitz course to pronounce or original stuff such as goose carpaccio and coffee zabaglione. You'll be tempted to start with something from the lengthy appetizer list, but move cautiously. Most of them are just decoys.

The real target here is a mouthful: carpaccio di prosciutto d'oca parmigiano e olio tartufato. It's thin sliced goose topped with parmesan and truffled oil, and you simply cannot get enough of it. When you taste its delicate, lingering flavor, you may never be satisfied with beef as the main ingredient for this dish again. I ordered it all three times I ate in the restaurant, which I'm really not supposed to do. Don't spread it around.

Other good appetizers are vitello tonnato, a credible version of the Tuscan classic consisting of cold roast veal in an unctuous tuna sauce, and a marinated dish of shrimps, beans and celery called insalata di gamberetti . The other cold appetizers, I'm afraid, just left me cold.

But really, it's time to hurry on to the thin-crust pizzas and first-rate pastas. They are the most consistent courses in this restaurant.

Pizza con scamorza e radicchio is my personal favorite, a crisp pie oozing smoked mozzarella that is redolent of bittersweet radicchio--a soaring combination. Pizza pugliese, with sweet onion and pecorino cheese, is another exotic winner, and the more mundane pizza Margherita, with fresh basil and tomato, its humble equal.

Pastas are made fresh daily, and cooked strictly al dente, with a variety of sauces that compromise little to the American palate. Maccheroni integrali is an all-wheat pasta with a muscular bite, flavored strongly with olive puree, capers and tomato. Rigatoni with eggplant and ricotta is the kind of pasta dish that you dream about, a wonderfully soft version with an almost fluffy texture. But black linguine in spicy sauce seemed just plain tired, a gummy rendition with a generic, undefined sauce.

This is not a restaurant where main courses are emphasized, and in fact the menu lists just five. All look appealing, but if you only choose one than make it the misto griglia, a seafood mixed grill consisting of slices of salmon, sea bass and swordfish blanketed with a tomato and olive concasse. It is executed to near perfection.

There is a large and somewhat contrived dessert list which is a hit-or-miss proposition. The simpler ones, such as the caramelized upside down pear tart and the biscotti with vino santo, hit. Others, like a positively weird coffee zabaglione and a misplaced melon mousse with kiwi sauce, miss.

The service is erratic, too, despite Signore Molfetta's efforts to be a gracious host. (He often treats his customers to shots of grappa at the bar.) One evening, I had a highly solicitous waiter who hailed from somewhere in Sicily. On another, I got stuck with someone who looked and sounded totally perplexed throughout the evening. Maybe there was a full moon that night.

Mezzaluna is moderately expensive. Antipasti are $6.50 to $12. Primi piatti are $5 to 14. Griglia are $14 to $20. There is a very pleasant wine list with some excellent, low-priced Italian wines. Among the whites, try a bone-dry Arneis Ceretto for $27. Among the reds, enjoy the eminently drinkable Dolcetto d'Alba from Bruno Giacosa at $21.

MEZZALUNA

2441 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar.

(714) 675-2004.

Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner daily, 5 to midnight

American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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