Sometimes location, location, location is overrated. Case in point: Pazza Luna in Locust Point, which seems out of step with its surroundings but has managed to thrive in the five years of its existence. It's a quirky little restaurant with good but not cheap, mostly Italian food. A lot of similar restaurants -- at least on the surface -- have disappeared without a trace. Why has this one succeeded?
Surely owner Kim Acton is the reason. She's the former owner of the popular Tutti Gusti in Ocean City and was manager of the old Pimlico Hotel and later Lenny's Chop House, so she had a customer base before she ever opened Pazza Luna's doors. The force of her personality shines through the decor, which she created herself, and the menu, which she re-creates daily (at least the specials) with chef Chelli Klemkowski.
FOR THE RECORD - The restaurant review in Sunday's Home & Family section implied that a chef at Pazza Luna, Chelli Klemkowski, is the restaurant's executive chef. In fact, Joe Edwards is executive chef.
The sun regrets the error.
In the bar downstairs is Acton's shrine to Frank Sinatra, and you'd better like his singing if you eat here because you're going to hear a lot of it. The bar and small dining rooms upstairs are appealingly decorated with stars, suns and moons. (Pazza Luna means "crazy moon.") The tablecloths are topped with white paper stamped with the words "In garlic we trust." Take it as a warning or a promise. With the bread, your waiter will bring a whole roasted garlic head.
The menu reads like Acton wrote it herself, with footnotes. "Magnificent! Bravo, chef!" it says about a special this evening, a large grilled pork chop with roasted peaches melting into it along with gorgonzola cheese. Tiny bits of candied walnut add delicious crunch without tasting too much like candy. The waiter tries to talk my husband into ordering the pork medium rare as the chef recommends, but he stands firm at medium. Luckily, it's not at all dry. Mashed sweet potatoes and fresh green beans are colorful and delicious; and if the whole dish seems a bit wintry for July -- well, the air conditioning is on full blast.
If you don't want to upset the owner, don't make special requests. The menu has a convoluted explanation, which boils down to the fact that the Atkins Diet is ruining the cuisine. I sympathize. And while you're at it, no substitutions, please. The menu also lets you know there's a $5 sharing fee and a $10 corkage fee and the pasta is cooked al dente so "please consider this during the cooking process." That last totally baffles me. Then there's the movie reference: "Remember, pay it forward every day!! Your friend Kim."
Still, I get the good feeling it's meant to convey, and the general sense that we should be respectful of the chef's work (especially the pasta), which I totally agree with.
So forget Atkins and indulge in the pasta of the day: enormous white lumps of crab and sweet little yellow grape tomatoes in a delicate fennel cream sauce tossed with conchiglie pasta.
If you insist on low carb, the good doctor would approve of the rare slices of meaty tuna loin encrusted in pepper with a bit of lemongrass sauce. (The lemongrass, by the way, comes from our waiter's garden.)
It's our good fortune that we're eating here on a Thursday night. As the menu says, "It's Thursday night and you know what that means, don't you?" Well, no. But it turns out that on Thursdays the chef makes braised lamb shanks, with a tomato and wild mushroom sauce and orecchiette pasta. The meat melts in the mouth, a nice contrast with the pasta. But if this is the restaurant's summer menu, I'd like to see the winter menu.
I've left the appetizers till now because they are somewhat less impressive than the main courses. (The opposite of what is often true.) First of all, there aren't many of them. The littleneck clams have a pleasant marinara sauce, delicate enough not to overwhelm the plump little shellfish. Mussels would be an alternative, or the soup of the day, this day cream of mushroom. The only other appetizer is the best -- grilled bread soft with olive oil, a bit of balsamic vinegar, good chopped tomatoes and goat cheese. Magnificent! Bravo, chef!
If one of those four doesn't interest you, your starter will have to be salad or a half order of pasta. Insalata Becky Marie balances grilled eggplant, fresh mozzarella, a bit of grilled Vidalia onion, and tomatoes, all with a fresh-tasting vinaigrette and a sprig of fresh basil. (Fresh herbs are used liberally here.) A spoonful of cucumber salad (cucumber and red onion tossed with creme fraiche) is draped with house smoked salmon. Lovely, although I could have used a bit more of the salad itself.
Dinner ends traditionally, with cannoli from Vaccaro's and a house-made tiramisu that's too boozy. Even better are the untraditional choices: a warm brownie or lemon verbena creme brulee, sharply citrusy and creamy textured.
I would be willing to bet that by the third time you ate at Pazza Luna, Kim Acton would greet you warmly by name and probably remember that you favored the bruschetta over the other appetizers. And that's why Pazza Luna is hopping, even on a weeknight in the summer doldrums.
Food: 3 stars
Service: 3 stars
Atmosphere: 3 stars
Where: 1401 E. Clement St., Locust Point
Hours: Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, for dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$8; Entrees: $9-$38