October 8, 1984 | Vintage Insatiable
Half-Moon Over Manhattan

        There I was baking my brains on the beach in one of the les chic Hamptons, when the first word reached me: Mezzaluna. Sharper than the sand fly’s sting came the communiqués from Western civilization: Mezzaluna. So even before I joined the far-from humble standees, chattering, ticking, and kiss-kissing to speed the 45-minute wait, I knew. Mezzaluna is the restaurant of the moment. Not “season”. Not “year”. I can safely track only “moment,” because the way fame strokes in this town, with half a dozen ambitious new eateries poised to open and vie for our favor, each one may be a star for fifteen minutes. Only the legends will survive the New Year.

        And what a glorious baptism for Mezzaluna. Sleek Italian sweetmeats sip peach-blushed champagne Bellinis, stretching and striding like the tawny lionesses they are. The belle donne are in Attenzione twosomes. Flighty Eurotwerps and their glorious muses, with great manes of jet black or the latest in little boy shearings, line up behind, and after them wait the pale, well-behaved Wasp affluents of the neighborhood and the lively tagtails that necessarily follow-and are already there.
        Why Mezzaluna? It is winsome. It is charming. It is clever. And modishly noisy. The menu offers no entrees, just antipasti (mostly salads), the paper-thin raw beef carpaccio with varying adornments, pasta, and pizza-trattoria fare with nuova cucina expletives, fast food (alas, at slow prices), sometimes wonderful, too often curiously bland.

        It is adorable. And enchantingly Italian. It looks as if millions of lire have gone into dolling up the tiny space. Tables are topped with marble the peach and green of a salmon-spinach terrine. Ginori manufactures the handsome china. Fluffy white clouds float on the sky-blue ceiling. Handsome artifacts and twenty teas in red-painted English tea tins are stored in the sixteenth-century side-board. The cunning blue-glass-in-silver filigree salt shakers and the pottery ashtrays look ripe for light-fingered collectors. And almost everything wears the house logo, for “Mezzalauna” not only means “half-moon,” it also refers to a two-handled crescent-shaped chopping tool -- the dual meanings that 72 Florentine artists were asked to interpret. Their work makes a mosaic on one wall and entitles the artists to dine, on the house, when they hit New York.

        So never mind the cramped quarters. Never mind that you dare not exhale (the back of your chair is kissing the back of the chair behind, your knees are caressing the knees across the way, and if anyone shifts, he will go over the ledge). Never mind the literally dashing service. Dash, drop a plate, dash. Isn’t that what makes Mezzaluna so authentic? If the waiters in their long blue-and-white-striped aprons and the blue-and-white shirt - sleeves were any more charming, there would be a queue to take them home at closing.

        Ours tonight has such a winning smile it’s difficult to pay attention to the specials of the day. The news is that we can’t order pizza till after 10:30 P.M. (or at lunchtime). It seems the house was losing money on bellezze (Beautiful People, Italian style) who sat for hours over pizza and a glass of wine. So, if you’re hungry, it’s a cinch to drop $35 or $40 per person for food and drink, tax and tip incluso, the wine from a highly original, not unreasonable, list -- but watch out for the bubbly Pellegrino water at $5 the big bottle.

        Friends who stopped by early on and nibbled a pasta and carpaccio with their wine and paid $35 for two confessed that they headed directly up the street to Harper for two hamburgers: “We were starved.” But from the clamor of the growing claque here, it would seem that few mind dropping $9 for a pizza the size of a dinner plate or $10 for what would be a half a portion of pasta almost anywhere else. Cara mia, don’t you want to know what we’ll be wearing come autumn? With theater like this, let’s not quibble about pennies. We can even conquer the obligatory lineup torture by dispatching a chum addicted to people-watching -- or a professional line-stander -- to list our name for a table until we amble in after the movie.
        And the food can be splendid. Panzarotti as a daily special -- plump ricotta-and-spinach - filled pillows of pasta in a sage-touched butter -- are sublime, and spaghetti sparkles with bottarga, sun-dried tuna roe tossed with pousse-pieds, a briny green grown in salt marshes (another daily offering). Zestily sauced bresaola della Valtellina, air-cured dried beef, rides a cushion of pungent greens. Carpaccio may be mated with arugula, and Parmesan, with crisp radicchio and Romano, with tomato, basil, and onions, with rather bland herbs, even (rather effectively) with thin slices of avocado. Saltato on padella, quick sautéed thins of beef, are tomato-tangy with olive, and oregano. But the grilled scottato with Fontina is wimpily bland.

        A good dousing with salt and the house’s fine Tuscan oil helps. In fact, several antipasti need doctoring -- salt, lemon, splashes of oil -- the exquisite tiny mozzarella balls (which split open to reveal a cherry tomato at the heart), for one, and the insalata Mezzaluna (thins of raw artichoke, celery, mushroom, and cheese), for another.

        Pastas are scantily sauced in the Italian style. If you’re counting on the noodles lush and heartily crowned, forget it. Just three shrimp and half a dozen leaves of radicchio grace the lightly creamed tagliolini. A modest mince of porcini mushrooms flavors the wide papparadelle noodles. Penne warming cold tomato, basil, and mozzarella may be elegant as long as the great tomatoes of the summer last. The green lasagna of the day -- one time layered with Bolognese sauce, another time rich and creamy, with ricotta and a very tame pesto --- might seem but a cheekful for a growing man. I always wondered why New York’s Italian restaurants rarely attempted squash-filled tortellini. The gluey texture of these plump little dumplings di zucca in a thick tomato cream may explain all.
        Stop by for lunch. There is no one except our trio at 12:30 one recent Friday, and this day the house never fills, though I spy assorted food-world stars exploring the menu. On a slightly busier day, Mezzaluna seems unprepared for the noontime crowd: Waiters dash and forget and disappear. A quarter of the employees clusters at the bar, oblivious to the chaos. And the small wood-burning pizza oven blazes, turning out pies that are unpleasantly scorched -- an impossible salty pesto, a bizarre pizza of the day: fresh pineapple, prosciutto, tomato, and mozzarella. Is there a cook in the kitchen or a poet-dreamer? Surely no one actually tasted this mess before offering it. Pizza with four cheeses, or with eggplant and olives -- even pizza primavera -- is definitely safer, infinitely tastier.
        Best of the desserts: raspberries in orange juice. Strawberries in a puddle of balsamic vinegar are a sophisticated option. I couldn’t detect champagne in the fresh fruit. And the sorbets (“made without sugar,” our waiter boasts) are dry and grainy, no fun at all, not even the grapefruit with pink peppercorns.

        Even if you’re madly in love with Italy and Italians, you may not choose to endure the din and pre-dining detention here. But if you need to be where it’s happening…if you are amused watching the golden urchins at play…if you want the taste of Milan—the classic, the outrageous, and the silly -- dazzlingly witty Mezzaluna lights the horizon.

Mezzaluna, 1295 Third Avenue, between 74th and 75th street 212 535 9600.

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