Why does one restaurant succeed and another one, seemingly just as worthy, fail? In the case of Pazza Luna, I always felt owner Kim Acton was the reason -- she was such a presence there.
She created the decor of the Locust Point rowhouse herself, with its whimsical sun, stars and moon motifs. The menu read like her personal food diary, and still does: "Danny Dickman taught me how to make this classic [Caesar salad]. He would say to me ... 'Kimmie, you need lots of garlic, lots of anchovy, lots of lemon.' Thanks, Danny! We sure do miss you!"
Of course, having good food, especially good Italian food -- this is Baltimore, after all -- didn't hurt.
But last November, Acton sold Pazza Luna to Dennis and Sandy Stallings, who said they were going to keep the place just as it was except for a few minor renovations. I gave them about five months to see whether they really could resist tinkering. Did they, you ask? The answer is yes -- and no.
First of all, they must be doing something right. On a weeknight, Pazza Luna was almost full to capacity, with two large parties in the upstairs dining rooms. (One was a bunch of women who had had too much to drink. In that case, unfortunately, the noise is deafening in the small rooms.)
The new owners seem every bit as warm and friendly and involved in the restaurant as Acton was. The rowhouse is just as cozy and the kitschy decor just as charming. The biggest change may be that Frank Sinatra is less of a presence on the sound system. Acton was, by her own admission, obsessed with him.
Pazza Luna's predominantly Italian menu isn't trying to be all things to all people, but most will find something to like on it. Many of the dishes I remember from my last visit are still on the menu, like the Thursday-only lamb shank Bolognese special.
The pasta is still made on the premises, but the bread isn't.
Desserts have taken a bit of a hit. Only the warm, fudgy square of a brownie, made with Ghirardelli chocolate and served with ice cream, whipped cream and fudge sauce, is homemade.
Maybe the first thing you need to know about eating at Pazza Luna is this: If you don't like garlic, turn around and go home. Its fragrance permeates the building, the bistro-style paper tablecloths have "in garlic we trust" printed in tiny letters on them, and a roasted head of garlic comes with the bread. Considering the buildup, the kitchen is actually quite discreet in its use, adding it liberally when appropriate, as in giant shrimp Rao's style, cooked with lots of butter, garlic and white wine and arranged with crisp toasts to soak up the terrific sauce.
But in the fork-tender veal scaloppine di Luna, garlic was only a bit player, which allowed the sun-dried tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms room to strut their stuff and the flavors of fruity olive oil and wine to come through in the sauce.
Dinners arrived with crisp green beans and roast potatoes. That seemed to be fairly inflexible, even though potatoes were redundant with the fish of the day: mild, sweet halibut encrusted with thin layers of crisp potatoes and sauced with butter and shallots.
In general, missteps are minor here. The slices of pork tenderloin, for instance, grilled so they were still pink, were very fine, and the bed of creamy polenta they lay on was superb. Unfortunately, half the plate was covered with the good pear and walnut chutney when a generous spoonful would have done.
On two past visits, pastas have stood out. This time a half order of fettuccine Alfredo served as a first course, although I was surprised my friend could eat anything else after polishing off the rich, creamy strands. Still, they seemed like an airy nothing compared to the enormous helping of eggplant parmesan with marinara that served as a first course on the specials menu.
Appetizers are somewhat limited, but you won't go wrong with the fat clams in their rosy marinara sauce or, best of all, Pazza Luna's bruschetta, a chilly and refreshing salad of chopped tomato, onion and fresh basil piled high on chewy grilled bread.
If you liked Pazza Luna when it was owned by Kim Acton, you'll like it under the new owners. It has the same feel to it, a small, cozy Little Italy-style restaurant in Locust Point with plenty of personality. Although it isn't quite a dress-up, special-occasion restaurant, it isn't cheap either. Expect to pay about $50 a person unless you're careful.
FOOD *** (3 stars)
SERVICE *** (3 stars)
ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)
Address: 1401 E. Clement St., Locust Point
Hours: Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$10; entrees: $19-$37
RATINGS / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *