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Mezzaluna: Go for the Schmooze, Stay for the Food

March 03, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

It's Sunday evening at Mezzaluna, and the regulars have already assembled around the restaurant's L-shaped bar. A confident, attractively dressed Corona del Mar crowd sips moscato and grappa while nibbling on some of Orange County's most authentic Italian cooking and, more to the point, getting grandly schmoozed up in lilting Florentine-accented English by Romano Molfetta, arguably Orange County's most charming restaurateur.

There's no missing Molfetta; he's the rakishly handsome man behind the bar wearing a designer sweater, professorish spectacles and a tennis player's tan. Once upon a time he was an Alfa Romeo executive, but somehow he got into the food business along with friend and colleague Aldo Bozzi of the original Mezzaluna in New York City. (Neither of his Mezzalunas is related to the restaurants of the same name in Aspen and Beverly Hills.)

Even though this Mezzaluna is open from late morning to the wee hours, I've never been here when Molfetta wasn't behind the bar. His wife, Pamela, is also a fixture, and together the two give this place a real neighborhood air, the sort that a good trattoria needs for survival in Italy. It's this fact, and not the chichi design or the delicious food, that explains Mezzaluna's lasting appeal. The air of familiarity makes Mezzaluna the most Italian of Orange County restaurants--a ristorante integrale , integrated into the local scene, if you will.

It hasn't been easy, though. For its first few years the restaurant was struggling, in part perhaps because it is so resolutely Italian. Corona del Mar diners weren't taken with the restaurant's cracker-crust pizzas, chewy pastas or delicately flavored appetizers in the early days, nor were they totally comfortable eating fancy Italian dishes in what is really a fancied-up cafe.

But gradually, Molfetta's dogged charm, combined with Piedmontese chef Ugo Allesina's rustic cooking, won a steady following, and today the restaurant appears to be over the hump. There is likely to be a good crowd whenever you dine there now, and the air is often thick with conversation in Italian.

The word mezzaluna , it should be mentioned, has two Italian translations: the crescent moon and a crescent-shaped kitchen chopper with two wooden handles. As a result of that double sense, the restaurant's walls are plastered with colorful interpretations of the waxing (or waning, if you are of the half-empty-cup school) moon done by various artists. The plates, the menu and other paraphernalia are decorated with a logo of the traditional chopper done in blue and yellow.

Open the black plastic menu cover (red if you come for lunch) and the first thing you see is a list of specials printed on bright red paper. This is where chef Allesina gets creative, even a touch outrageous. At the very top of the page is his tropical salad of shrimp, avocado, papaya and other ingredients--something you'd expect to be served at a Mexican resort. When slightly ripe chunks of avocado meet slightly unripe chunks of papaya, the result is surprisingly pleasurable.

You'll find wonderful trattoria dishes like eggplant ravioli in a sauce of basil, tomato and goat cheese and orecchiette (ear-shaped noodles) with spicy sausage, rapini and tomato sauce. Allesina prepares a light, distinctly Japanese tuna carpaccio with watercress ( de rigueur in Corona del Mar, though scandalous to a red-blooded Italian), a crisp, nearly greaseless veal Milanese and a hearty, if pedestrian, chicken Parmigiana.

Neapolitan-style pizzas, cooked downstairs in a wood-burning oven, are listed on the menu's back page. I can't even think of coming here without ordering at least one pizza scamorza e radicchio, with smoked mozzarella, little pieces of broken radicchio and chunks of fresh tomato. The delicate smoke-flavored cheese plays off this crust like music, with the other components adding little grace notes of flavor.

Pizza ai funghi (with mushrooms) is one you find all over Italy, the intense mushroom flavors somehow magnified by the oven's wood embers. There's even a traditional pizza Napoletana-- anchovy, capers, oregano--even though Naples is a long, long way from Molfetta's home town of Florence.

The chef's lasagna verde alla Bolognese is rich and creamy, the bechamel sauce giving the green lasagna with meat sauce an effect as much French as Italian. Pappardelle ai funghi porcini --wide, flat noodles with earthy porcini mushrooms--have the richness of Allesina's own home region of Piedmont. Paglia e fieno (literally "straw and hay") is so named because it is composed of a mix of green and golden fettuccine, one made with spinach, the other with egg. Allesina serves them in a light tomato sauce with chicken, peas and broccoli.

I've also had a tasty version of capellini d'angelo here. The angel-hair pasta is served in a simple basil and garlic tomato sauce. It's big with the regulars at the bar.

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