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[whitespace] Bella Luna
Christopher Gardner

Pasta Perfect: Chef Engelo Cucco has plenty to feel proud about at Bella Luna, a fine Italian trattoria and another jewel to add to the restaurant treasure trove that is Palo Alto.

Another Italian restaurant blooms in Palo Alto, and the good news is that it's authentic, affordable and absolutely appealing

By Christina Waters

WHAT A PLEASURE! The aptly named Bella Luna on University Avenue is a delicious discovery. Sunny Tuscan hues saturate the intimate interior, punctuated by playful stained-glass mezzaluna lights and a deep blue ceiling suggesting an alfresco twilight. But this isn't simply one more Mediterranean culinary excursion. As if by some bit of transatlantic enchantment, the dishes prepared and served at Bella Luna re-create the experience of dining in Italy on Italian food prepared by Italian chefs. It's a tasty illusion.

If I were pressed to locate any imperfection in our recent meal, I might suggest that the house bread--a rather flavorless loaf with cakelike texture--be replaced by some fine local francese. Otherwise, I'd preserve that evening in amber.

A $26 bottle of supple, complex Syrah 1997 from Fess Parker Vineyard in Los Olivos got things off to a wonderful start. Mineral water was poured into graceful pilsner glasses, and appetizers of the house salad ($5.50) and carpaccio ($6.50) were skillfully presented. Like a friendly trattoria, Bella Luna appeals to a wide range of patrons, from couples to extended families, and soon the room was filled with people all delighted by this or that gorgeous pasta dish.

My salad was prettily composed, with spears of endive on the side and a festive mound of arugula topped by shreds of sweet, crisp radicchio. The greens were dressed only with fruity olive oil--as they might be in Italy--which I spiked with a few shakes of salt and a squeeze of lemon from Jack's beautifully arranged carpaccio. His slices of crimson beef had been dusted with shaved grana cheese, liberally topped with more of the fine house olive oil and mounded with a generous garnish of capers. A slice of lemon and spoonful of zesty mustard completed the picture. The two dishes worked as well together as they did with the wine.

Entrees were even better. Jack's veal scaloppine ($14.95) was rustically topped with sautéed portobello mushroom slices and sauced with only a splash of wine and a touch of cream. My homemade pansotti ($10.95) encircled the huge white plate--creamy pasta rounds filled with spinach and ricotta.

The combination of mushrooms and veal always tastes like Europe, especially when the plate is appointed with a few slices of roast potatoes and beautifully sauteed baby carrots and pea pods. Nothing was overdone, no portion was too gigantic; the whole creation was appetizing and cooked with as much care as expertise. The pasta was nothing short of stupendous. In the center of the pasta moons, each about 2 to 3 inches across, sat a pool of flawless marinara sauce, topped with fresh diced tomatoes. Everything was lightly glazed with a fresh sage sauce and every bite was unbelievably good. Transparent, tender, yet somehow al dente, this pasta was remarkable. It shamed almost every pasta in my memory banks.

What a treasure! Bella Luna is loaded with understated style, the food is wonderful and it's reasonably priced. Service is warm and astute. You bet we were wildly thrilled with the place even before our desserts of almond semifreddo and a celestial poached pear and mascarpone cheese creation suitable for canonization.

Please understand that we did not want the pasta to end. We wanted it to last forever--I don't think I've enjoyed a pasta this much in years, and Jack swore he'd come back "in a minute" just for the pansotti spinaci e ricotta.

When four out of four dishes are this good, one suspects that most other menu items are equally satisfying. And the light, lovely desserts proved an extremely satisfying close to our meal. Poached pears had been embedded in a light genoise layered with mascarpone and the entire slice tattooed with a tracery of chocolate ($4.95). Remarkable. And somehow so pure. Jack's semifreddo ($4.50) was a molded alabaster vanilla mousse laced with almonds all frozen into an exquisite texture. Unsweetened whipped cream and a tart raspberry sauce spilled over one side.

Rustic, elegant, delicious--Bella Luna.

Bella Luna Ristorante Italiano
Address: 233 University Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/322-1846
Cuisine: Authentic Italian classics
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11am-3pm and 5-10pm (Fri. till 11pm); Sat 1-11pm, Sun 1-10pm.

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From the June 10-16, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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