Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 24, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Dining Out: La Mezzaluna

An autumn chill was in the air when we made tracks

for La Mezzaluna, a new restaurant offering "authentic Italian

cuisine" in the Witherspoon Street space formerly occupied by

the short-lived Italian eatery, Nodo. The newly designed space, drenched

in various shades of blues, and topped by a tiny, ultramarine ceiling

panel scattered with stars, is a charming sight, infused with romance

for either lunch or dinner.

During the Renaissance in Italy, gold was the only artist’s pigment

that was more highly priced than ultramarine blue. Thus it was that

saturated shades of ultramarine, a pigment made by grinding the semi-precious

stone lapis lazuli, was most prized, the best grades of which were

always reserved for the robes of the Virgin Mary.

At the new La Mezzaluna — the name means "half moon" —

you’ll find a saturation of blue walls, blue upholstery, blue stemware,

and blue shirts on the staff. The restaurant’s reproduction prints

even include Van Gogh’s "Starry Night." Lovely clear glass

"moondrop" lamps hang above each table, and the cherry-stained

wood of the upholstered booths are separated by ribbed glass panels.

An upholstered bench runs along the opposite side of the long, narrow

space, with ample tables for couples.

Executive chef and co-owner Chris Stevens grew up in central New Jersey

where his grandmother ran a restaurant for many years. Trained at

the Culinary Institute of America, he is a former owner of Casabona

Ristorante in Skillman and former executive chef of Les Copains, across

Witherspoon Street. Stevens’ business partner, Fred Szymborski, who

serves as La Mezzaluna’s front of house, maitre d’, and tableside

chef, grew up in Philadelphia of Italian and Polish parents, and has

12 years restaurant experience.

Working to maximize their vestpocket premises, the partners have placed

three tables in the window area for a total seating capacity of about

70. A blue velvet curtain divides this dining room from the waiting

vestibule area, now reduced to not much more than a door-sized space.

This is a BYOB premises with the advantage of having a liquor store

next door. One of our group stopped in for a bottle of Chianti, a

natural hit with all the diners, given the character of La Mezzaluna’s

menu.

Northern Italian dishes featuring meats and seafood, many prepared

with cream and/or cheese, dominate the menu. Veal dishes, chicken,

and a Florentine-style beefsteak cooked over charcoal are featured

among the Primi Piatti. Dinner entrees range from $14 for the Polla

Capicossa, pistachio-crusted chicken sauteed with wine and lemon,

to a high of $26 for the Zuppa di Pesce of sauteed clams, mussels,

shrimp, lobster, and squid.

The lunch and dinner menus are essentially the same, with slightly

fewer choices and fewer heavyweight dishes served at lunch. Lunch

entrees are $4 to $6 less (for smaller portions, of course), but appetizers,

salads, soups, and desserts are the same size and cost at lunch and

dinner.

Among the antipasti (priced $6 to $9), we tried the Cozze alla Zafferano,

a generous bowl of mussels steamed in a mild saffron broth (which

could well serve two). We also tried the $5 soup of the day, a hearty

bowl of white beans and arugula, with veal meatballs. Among the salads,

the Insalata Romanza ($7) offered an ample serving of grilled hearts

of romaine (with only the outer leaves touched by heat), served with

slices of Parmigiano-reggiano, and a white balsamic caesar dressing

($7). The antipasti course is preceded by slices of Italian bread

and a dipping platter of light olive oil surrounding a large clove

of roasted garlic.

A specialty of the new restaurant is table-side preparation of various

flamed and sauteed dishes. Of three risotto dishes on the dinner menu,

Risotto Ai Parmigiano ($16) and Risotto Ai Tartuffo (prepared with

seasonal truffles at seasonal price) are prepared at your table.

La Mezzaluna pasta choices include a Spagatinne with fresh tomato

and garlic ($12 for dinner, $7 for lunch) and Rigatoni Vodka ($14

and $8). We tried the Linguine Ai Gamberi con Rucola ($17 and $13),

a generous serving of jumbo shrimp over linguine with an arugula,

tomato, and basil sauce. Pulpo Livornese, one of the evening’s specials,

offered surprisingly tender slices of baby octopus served over a somewhat

bland bed of linguine.

The Pollo con le Melanzane, one of two chicken Primi Piatti, offered

an exceptionally tasty and satisfying "comfort food," just

right for the autumn chill. The dish offers a seared chicken breast

topped with pancetta, a slice of Sicilian eggplant, and broiled fresh

mozzarella, accompanied by "espanole sauce" (much like a delicate

gravy), and garlic mashed potatoes.

At dessert time we enjoyed the skillful and cheerful tableside preparation

of a Zabayone, a feather-light custard, prepared at the table by (we

later learned) co-owner Szymborski. Watching the husky maitre d’ effortlessly

whisk together two egg yolks, Marsala wine, and sugar in a deep copper

pot, heated over a gas flame, was impressive. The zabayone, served

over sliced fresh strawberries and whole blackberries, was a highlight.

All La Mezzaluna’s staff was friendly and anxious to please, a welcome

occurrence in these difficult days. Our server, just two days on the

job, made every effort to describe the evening’s dishes for us, some

more than once. Creative cooking, attractive decor, friendly service,

and generous portions certainly merit a return visit.

— Nicole Plett

La Mezzaluna, 25 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, 609-688-8515.

Open Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday to Thursday,

5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 10 p.m. Closed Sundays.

For Friday and Saturday dinner, reservations from 6:30 to 8:30

p.m. are accepted only for parties of five or more. Catering, takeout,

and private parties also offere


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