Luna Bella, Italian with some restraint

Luna Bella has another location in Columbia.

Eats: dining reviews, Hot Stuff

April 07, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Luna Bella, the brick-oven pizza restaurant in Columbia's Hickory Ridge Village Center, has opened a second location in Ellicott City.

The interior of the former Il Giardino has been upgraded and now looks downright sumptuous, with stucco walls in a rich mustard color, an enclosed porch with twinkling lights, and a smart-looking bar area where diners so inclined can eat in smoke-filled peace. The centerpiece of all this is a brightly burning brick oven in the main dining area that cooks up calzones and pizzas while you wait.

The menu at both locations focuses on classic southern Italian food, but with a nod to lighter eaters. Ravioli, lasagna and chicken parmesan are present and accounted for, but these red-sauce standbys share the menu with lighter choices like large, attractive salads, seafood dishes and vegetarian entrees.

One of the more impressive salads starts with spinach and other dark greens, then layers on chopped walnuts, candied dates, bits of blue cheese and slices of pears before coating the whole thing in a mild vinaigrette. However, as good as this mix was, it could have been even better with more blue cheese, a tarter vinaigrette and a more generous hand with the walnuts.

Other dishes showed a similar restraint, which to some may be a blessing and to others a curse. Pasta primavera was less garlicky and less oily than versions in other restaurants, both good things. The grilled chicken strips on top were borderline dry.

One of the few dishes that threw caution to the wind was an artichoke and spinach dip appetizer, a gooey warm mix of the veggies, flavorful cheese and lots of garlic, served with warm slices of toasted baguette. It was delicious, but fairly typical bar fare, especially compared with some of Luna Bella's more thoughtful offerings.

The salmon piccata, for example, showed that tweaking a classic can yield terrific results. Piccata is usually made with veal or chicken, not salmon, but the mild, fatty fish turned out to be an ideal foil for the tart lemon, butter and caper sauce. A simple mix of cooked-till-tender broccoli and carrots took up about two-thirds of the plate, an admirable ratio that, if adopted on a regular basis, could probably wipe out our nation's obesity problems. (On a related note, the fish received a modest amount of sauce, just enough to enhance its flavor without drowning it.)

Even the pizza and calzones, the restaurant's main attractions, were on the restrained side. The pizza's crust was appropriately chewy, but a few char marks would have added some character. And the sauce was more sweet than spicy, a choice that's perfectly acceptable but not my preference. A calzone stuffed with a garlicky mix of spinach and several cheeses packed more flavor and, like the pizza, was free of grease.

For dessert, a tray of choices was brought around, most of which were frosted and chocolate. A rainbow cake with layers in a multitude of hues was gobbled down in moments, and a German chocolate cake struck an admirable balance between a mild, moist cake and intensely sweet chocolate, caramel and coconut icing.

There's a lot to like about Luna Bella. It's attractive, yet casual enough for a family night out. The food is carefully prepared. But the thing that impressed me the most was the wait staff. We ate there early on a slow night - a Monday - so only a few other tables were occupied, and maybe that's why the service was so wonderful.

But whatever the reason, several servers - all dressed neatly in head-to-toe black - were standing by, waiting to see whether we needed anything.

This abundance of staff may not make good business sense, but as a patron, I loved it. And it wasn't just quantity that made the difference, it was quality. I've been to plenty of restaurants where waiters have put my leftovers in a foam container, but at Luna Bella was the box labeled and stashed in the fridge until I was ready to leave.

Luna Bella

Where: 8809 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City

Call: 410-461-1122

Open: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers $4.75-$9.95, entrees $8.95-$18.95

Food: ***

Service: ***1/2

Atmosphere: ***

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