Luna Rocks

For reasonable Italian food with stellar service, the Billantes can’t be beat

Tom Billante can't stop opening restaurants. Ever since founding the Ferrari's chain of Italian cafeterias in the 1970s (which was later sold to Cozzoli's), he has teamed with family members and other partners to launch one eatery after another along South Florida's east coast (and his former, once flourishing Mezzanotte empire stretched well beyond state borders). The current constellation of stellar venues includes, locally, Bella Luna and Trattoria Rosalia in Aventura; Ristorante Villagio in the Village of Merrick Park; and the brightest star, Carpaccio, in the Bal Harbour Shops. (The Billante clan doesn't always succeed: Sugo sank in its South Beach sanctuary earlier this year.)

The latest effort is Luna Café, which landed on the ground floor of the Wachovia Bank building on Biscayne Boulevard and 47th Street in late September. Already there are copious clusters of customers clamoring for a table — and clamoring and clamoring and clamoring some more. During a lunchtime visit, there were so many cars turning into the restaurant's parking garage from Biscayne that traffic up and down the boulevard came to a standstill (even more so than usual) until the valet team could clear things up. Those in the neighborhood, and those in the know, have quickly discovered that Luna eclipses other Italian restaurants of its ilk.

The Billantes' successful formula doesn't vary much from venue to venue. It begins with an effortlessly comfortable atmosphere, both family-friendly and a little bit chic. Luna's dining room is a happy space, all hopped up with the hustle-bustle of a waitstaff that clocks in with a click-clack of efficiency (splashed with a dash of charm). Another integral ingredient to the franchise is the menu, a selection of classic Italian restaurant dishes sectioned into soups, salads, antipastos, carpaccio, pizzas, pastas, risottos, fish, chicken, and meats. If someone in your party can't find something appealing to eat among the approximately 75 offerings, they've got a problem and should be shunned from future dining excursions. Astonishingly, through all the years and with all the crowds cramming into these popular establishments, prices never seem to increase; Luna's pastas top out at $14, entrées at $22.

JOE ROCCO

The cuisine won't take you over the moon, but it is consistently fresh, consistently tasty, and, if the Billante model holds up here, it will be consistently consistent — meaning if you like the lasagna this week, you'll like it in five weeks, or five years from now (this is true of fewer restaurants than you might imagine). And, trust me, you will like the lasagna, a short square of thin noodles lusciously layered with subtle touches of cheese and an especially buoyant Bolognese sauce. Pomodoro sauce — perfumed with basil and countered by lots of hearty homemade Italian sausage — atop thick tubes of rigatoni was likewise light. Toothsome, too, were veal-filled tortellini, tossed with peas in a pale pink tomato-cream sauce. And carbonara — with a rich, eggy sauce clinging to pancetta-studded noodles — was one of the best I've sampled in quite awhile. If you can resist finishing all the fresh focaccia and chunks of dark-crusted bread that precede the meal, at this point you might use it to mop up the leftover pasta sauces.

On all of our visits, the bread basket was brought right away, with water and beverages promptly following. Service is at the level one might find, if one is lucky, at much fancier (i.e., more expensive) establishments: Flatware is replaced with each course, the table crumbed, the wine poured with aplomb. Chances are pretty good that the manager will at some point mosey over and mention how beautiful you are. Well, maybe not you, but somebody or something will be thusly described — perhaps your companion, the wine, the evening, life.... Treating each diner as though he or she is special is something of a Billante signature — witness Carpaccio's ability to please the demanding Bal Harbour crowd for all of these years, while the restaurant space right across the way has had one tenant after another fall away faster than a drunk on a bucking bronco.

Not that mistakes can't happen. I ordered scaloppine Bella Luna but was brought scaloppine Portobello instead. Our waiter didn't hesitate to take back the errant dish, which was glossed in marsala sauce, and soon enough returned with the proper rendition of two extremely tender veal fillets garnished with artichokes and mushrooms — in a regrettable sauce that tasted like bottled lemon juice thickened with cornstarch. Lyonnaise potatoes and green beans with yellow squash accompanied the meat, which translates to a fulsome plate of food for $16.95. Chicken breasts come Milanese or Parmigiana or breaded and tossed with sausage, but I prefer the half-bird marinated in herbs, roasted in a wood-fired oven, and served in all its bony, crisp-skin glory.

Starters possessed the right stuff too. Pasta e fagioli boasted a hammy broth bumped with bacon, pork, and white beans. Margherita pizza pleased via a thin, floppy crust savorily slathered with the proper proportion of sauce to cheese. Carpaccios are auspiciously augmented, the aged beef version dressed with artichokes, arugula, and Parmesan cheese, while a Siciliana version of eggplant Parmesan brought delicate slices bubbling with tomato sauce and pecked with Pecorino cheese. Fried calamari rings arrived golden brown with tentacles and zucchini sticks mixed in, and meaty leaves of a whole artichoke were deliciously threaded with bread crumbs, garlic, and olive oil — simple, unpretentious, and even better with a squeeze of lemon.

A fresh napoleon of flaky puff pastry leaking runny vanilla pastry cream proved a hit at our table, as did a chocolate-coated ball of tortoni with marzipan-enhanced pistachio ice cream center. Neither had been our first choice, nor was the ricotta cheesecake, which was a bit on the dry side. Our two requested desserts had, in fact, been unavailable, which led to the waiter sincerely apologizing and then the manager coming over to apologize and eventually desserts being offered on the house. Luna's modus operandi: Keep the customer satisfied. The staff here does this as well as anyone — and as smoothly and naturally as the moon passing through Earth's penumbral shadow.

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