Charming, with snags

Restaurant: Some dishes disappoint, but the decor's a delight at Pazza Luna.

February 28, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Pazza Luna is a restaurant you want to love. The new Italian trattoria in Locust Point is loaded with charm, a sweet little place with moons and stars and suns on every possible surface, from the wallpaper to the plates. (No surprise, since the name means "crazy moon" in Italian.)

Most of Pazza Luna's downstairs is taken up with a polished granite bar, but there is room for a few tables. An open kitchen is in back, where everything is made to order and owner-chef Kim Acton works without a lot of help. Plan on a leisurely meal.

Upstairs are two small dining rooms, the tables set with white cloths covered with white paper bistro-style. The paper is imprinted with the words "In Garlic We Trust" in tiny letters; and, indeed, a whole head of roasted garlic comes with the bread. Don't panic if you're not a garlic lover. Olive oil or sweet butter is available for the asking.

So what's not to love? Well, the bread wasn't as wonderful as bread in an Italian restaurant should be; and our wine was served warmer than it should have been.

And then there were the littleneck clams in marinara sauce. This, three salads and a soup were the starters for the evening. (The small menu changes daily.) We loved the fat little clams, and the marinara was superb -- fresh- tasting and light, so you could eat it with a spoon like soup. Alas, it was infused with fine grit from the clam shells. Oddly enough, the clams themselves weren't gritty.

A fat fillet of salmon, the only fish among the eight main courses, looked gorgeous but was dry -- in spite of a fine lemon butter sauce -- and not as fresh as it could have been. But the creamy risotto and julienne carrots and squash that came with it helped soften our disappointment.

On the plus side, the house specialty, osso buco, was a lusty delight. The full-flavored braised veal shanks came with a lively sauce of tomatoes, onions, carrots, white wine and garlic.

Half a roasted duck was cooked old-school style -- that is, well-done enough to be almost falling off the bone. It was fat-free and had a crackly golden skin. An exquisite port demi-glace added just a hint of sweetness. With the duck came more of that good risotto and sugar snap peas that were jewel-green and tender-crisp.

If we had started either of these last two dinners with the potato leek soup or a salad rather than the clams, we would have nothing but good things to say about the kitchen. The soup was a cream- infused puree of leeks and potatoes, a perfect antidote to the chill of a late winter night. The salad, a simple combination of greens, Belgian endive, tomatoes and kalamata olives, also pleased us.

Homemade isn't always better; Pazza Luna's vanilla ice cream was less flavorful than some commercial brands. But as part of a dessert that included puff pastry, fresh berries and a berry puree for a sauce, who would really care? You could also have the ice cream filled with chunks of Snickers bars. Still, of our desserts I liked the tartuffo best -- an Italian version of a French bombe filled with two kinds of gelato. It was dusted with cocoa instead of having the more usual hard chocolate shell.

So not everything is perfect at Pazza Luna. A lot is very good. With the breadth of experience Kim Acton brings to her new venture, my guess is that the snags will get smoothed out in time. (She's the former owner of Tutti Gusti in Ocean City and was manager of the old Pimlico Hotel and later Lennys Chop House.) Go to Pazza Luna if for no other reason than to enjoy the decor -- done by Acton herself, not a professional designer.

PAZZA LUNA

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1401 E. Clement St.

Hours: Open for dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers: $5.25-$7.95; main courses: $9.95-$23.95

Call: 410-727-1212

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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