PRINCETON PACKET: August 26, 2005
By Tom and Kate O'Neill, TimeOFF
New owners have revamped the menu at this Witherspoon Street spot, serving classically influenced Italian cuisine with charm and style.
Discovering an ambitious and satisfying new restaurant is a treat. And to find it nearby, on restaurant row along Princeton's Witherspoon Street, is a pleasant surprise indeed. Read More
A restaurant has occupied this spot for as long as we can remember, including the late, lamented Athenian where Tom was introduced to souvlaki (and Space Invaders) more than 30 years ago. More recently, a succession of owners transformed the storefront into a series of white-tablecloth dining spots, including Nodo and La Mezzaluna.
This spring, Mario Capuano and Michael Moriello acquired the business, revamped the menu and made some small changes to the interior. They have operated restaurants in Monroe and Manalapan, but those were really pizza places, Mr. Capuano told us. At La Mezzaluna, they offer fine, classically influenced Italian cuisine that is extraordinarily well-realized. They serve it with charm and style in an unpretentious room that awaits only redecoration to reflect the high style for which the owners are striving and which the kitchen and the service already achieve.
Two round dining tables stand in the foyer - good people-watching vantage points through the window that overlooks Witherspoon Street. The long, somewhat narrow dining room offers a choice of seating: upholstered banquettes along one side, three freestanding tables-for-two down the middle and booths along the far wall. In the roomy booths, where we sat, the tables are topped with stainless steel, and rippled glass dividers create a sense of privacy. Posters and pictures with culinary themes hang on the blue walls, which also display, naturally, half moons. Marco, our lively and engaging server, described the specials to us after opening our wine. (Specials are also listed on a board on the sidewalk beside the entrance.) As we mulled over our choices, we sipped the wine and enjoyed crusty bread with a small bowl of artichoke hearts marinated in olive oil.
The regular menu is organized in the classic Italian manner of antipasti, salads, pasta course, main course, side dishes and dessert. Risotto is a specialty, and is made here with Carnaroli rice, rather than the more familiar Arborio. Antipasti range from the familiar - deep-fried calamari with marinara sauce ($12) - to the elegant - pumpkin ravioli brunoise of squash, coriander crème and sage browned butter ($12). The four salads include one composed of grilled shrimp, calamari and scallops over greens dressed with citrus vinaigrette ($13). Oddly, the principal dishes are listed on the menu as "Farinacei" (pastas), but include no pasta, which appears under the separate heading of "Pastas and Risotto."
Among the regular entrées are sea bass with shrimp, clams, mussels and capers in a scampi sauce ($32) and rack of lamb over broccoli rabe and whipped potatoes ($34). The evening's specials included a spicy shellfish soup, crabcakes with a saffron reduction sauce, trout, and swordfish with mango chutney.
Half orders of the risotto specialties (which will soon include one featuring truffles) are available as appetizers. A special that evening was risotto with chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and peas ($14 for the half portion). It made a generous appetizer, rich and creamy thanks to the high-starch Carnaroli rice. Fresh grated parmesan was added at the table. The warm salad of braised duck with crisp-fried goat cheese and toasted almonds on Boston lettuce ($12) was sumptuous but contained more chèvre than duck. A smooth agre-dolce vinaigrette added pizzazz.
The pyramid ravioli with braised lamb, pancetta and shallots in veal reduction ($25) should not be missed. These aren't your Nona's ravioli! Four large ravioli were filled with shredded lamb, carrot and celery, made even more savory by the addition of pancetta and finished with a veal reduction. The hefty crabcake evidenced no filler - just lump and backfin crab dressed up with a saffron and mushroom sauce. It was served on spinach in an attractive presentation enhanced by its warm, contrasting colors.
Servings here are generous, and the side dishes tempting, if expensive (sautéed spinach is $7; sautéed wild mushrooms are $9). But do not pass up the desserts. La Mezzaluna ends your meal not just with a sweet but a flourish. Service is tableside from a rolling cart, and the ceremony of the flambé dessert enlivens the whole room. The "dolci" are imaginative, including some we had never before encountered: assorted polenta shortbread ice cream sandwiches ($9) and sugar-coated, semisweet chocolate ricotta fritters ($9). The fritters looked like scoops of ice cream, but were crunchy, sweet and rich and were served in a luxurious bath of intense chocolate. The seasonal flambé over house-made gelato ($13) featured berries. Flecks of cinnamon sparkled as Marco sprinkled them into the flames. The fruit was fresh, tangy and sweet, the sauce, creamy, with grace notes contributed by the liqueurs. Two small, well-made espressos ($3) accompanied the desserts. La Mezzaluna's new proprietors have made a strong start. They face a challenge in improving the decor to match the elegance of their cuisine. The service is warm and informed but perhaps a bit too fast. A menu this ambitious repays study, and food this good deserves to be not just eaten but savored at a leisurely pace. Collapse