25 Witherspoon Street
Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey
The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
Note: 05/2005 - Restaurant now under new ownership.
Sandwiched into the storefront formerly occupied by the sensational
but short-lived Nodo, La Mezzaluna is a little bit of SoHo in the heart
of Princeton. And, although a scant six months old, chef/co-proprietor Chris
Stevens' energetic upscale Italian cuisine is already one of the hottest
culinary tickets in town.
The restaurant's main dining area, attractively dressed in shades of blue
and embellished with half-moons, is a narrow, noisy, and bustling space replete
with two cramped aisles where co-proprietor Fred Szymborski often holds court
shaving truffles, filleting fish, and whipping up a number of dessert accoutrements.
It also boasts a plethora of closely spaced tables for two that challenge the
physical prowess of an anorexic contortionist.
Therefore... should you be dining à deux, be sure to put in a request
for the diminutive alcove/foyer located at the front of the establishment,
which, under normal circumstances, accommodates only three tables. These are
(comparatively) the most sedate seats in the house; they also afford a
bird's-eye view of the interesting variety of passers-by on Witherspoon Street.
Conversely, parties of four should seek out the comfortable booths along the
left wall in the main dining room.
Mr. Stevens' regional Italian cuisine is rich and robust, majoring in bold,
assertive flavors coaxed from the freshest possible combinations of
ingredients. The presentations are not particularly subtle or wildly
innovative, but they do generate a definite feeling of exuberance, a sense of
excitement for both the eye and the palate. And it only takes a brief sampling
of several of his outstanding offerings to convince you that the simplest
dishes, when properly executed, are often the most profound.
Chicken soup, for instance, is as unmitigatedly mundane and down-home as it
gets... but Mr. Stevens' version ($8.00) is nothing short of breathtaking. The
heady broth pulsates with the flavors of parsley and thyme and is awash with
succulent strands of tender chicken breast, firm and flavorful bread dumplings,
and finely diced carrots and celery.
The zucchini fritti ($8.00) is another rustic starter that deserves
high marks. Zucchini spears are lightly rolled in homemade breadcrumbs, gently
fried to a golden brown, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, and served with a side
of excellent tomato-basil sauce.
Pastas (also available in half portions) and entrées continue to reflect the
kitchen's lusty homespun culinary philosophy. The fussili con buco
($15.00) -- long spiral pasta laced with roasted eggplant, fresh plum tomatoes,
mozzarella, and ricotta -- is yet another of those simple yet superlative
dishes that not only appeases the appetite but soothes the soul as well. The
eggplant is wonderfully tender, while the tomatoes provide just the proper
acidic counterpoint to the mellifluous rhythmic mélange of melting cheeses.
The grilled jumbo shrimp ($22.00) is another excellent offering. The
crustaceans are delightfully crunchy, precisely as they should be, seasoned
with garlic, rosemary, and spiced breadcrumbs, and set on a provincial pillow
of artichoke hearts and roasted potatoes. And the carnivorously inclined need
not despair, as they may indulge themselves in an exceptionally flavorful
Hereford filet ($29.00) that has been grilled over cherry wood and finished off
with a topping of Gorgonzola cheese and caramelized onions.
Desserts, unfortunately, are something of a mixed bag. The warm pineapple
bread pudding with coconut gelato for two ($15.00) is incredibly delicious. On
the other hand, the tiramisù ($7.00) is generic at best, and the ricotta
cheesecake ($8.00) is so pasty its various components appear to be held
together with Krazy Glue. Espresso ($3.00) is rich and potent on one visit,
decidedly watery the next.
I must confess that I have a great fondness for La Mezzaluna, as it
pulsates with a kind of contagious kinetic buzz that exhilarates the psyche as
well as the palate. That being said, however, the establishment also engages in
a practice that puts a burr under the saddle of most restaurant critics, myself
included... Not only are daily specials recited without benefit of prices, they
are also significantly, significantly more expensive than their
printed counterparts. Several entrées, for example, hit the $40.00 mark... and
even taking into account the top-notch quality of the chef's imported ingredients,
that's still a mighty ritzy tab for an eatery that sports casual service and
serious acoustical and spatial limitations. Needless to say, unless you make
some rather pointed inquiries -- such as interrupting your server's noble
soliloquy after each and every revelation -- the presentation of the check is
likely to bring about a severe case of fiscal indisposition.
This form of pecuniary hocus-pocus, of course, is certainly not new to
various segments of the illustrious food service industry... and it raises
several extremely pertinent issues...
First of all, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, are this eatery's highly
touted specialties worth the not inconsequential financial damage? To a certain
extent, of course, this may very well depend on the state of your pocketbook at
the moment... as well as the constitution of individual offerings emerging from
the nether regions of the kitchen.
The seared halibut filet is prepared to pristine perfection in a
seafood-tomato broth, set on an island of al dente linguine, and
surrounded by atolls of shrimp, clams, and mussels. This is surely an
outstanding exemplification of the kitchen's capabilities... but it is hardly
worth the lofty $35.00 price tag. Especially in light of the fact that I have
just indulged in the worthy piscatorial presentations at the Stage House Inn,
one of the Garden State's premiere dining establishments, and have found them
to be infinitely more exquisite and infinitely less
expensive. And the oven-roasted Dover sole (swimming in at a hefty $40.00),
simply strains culinary credibility to the breaking point. The flesh is not at
all firmly textured -- as one would naturally expect of this noble denizen of
the deep -- but decidedly mushy; and the promissory provenance Provençal
(cooked with garlic, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, herbs, and olive oil) turns
out to be a topping of chopped onions and tomatoes, whose gelid countenance
chills the filet at the drop of a fork.
Whether or not patrons feel that the heady tariffs exacted for La
Mezzaluna's daily specials are entirely justified is really something of a
moot point. Messrs. Stevens and Szymborski have the right to charge whatever
the traffic will bear... and within the rarefied air of Princeton's hallowed
Ivy League precincts, it will bear quite a bit, indeed.
No, the crux of the matter is infinitely more ethical than monetary. If the
prices in question are clearly enunciated by the server or, better still,
presented in printed or written form as an addendum to the regular menu,
patrons have been duly and properly forewarned as to their potential fiscal
responsibility. No harm, no foul.
However, when tariffs for pricier daily specials appear to be deliberately
withheld, the diner is likely to feel that a bit of hanky-panky is afoot. I
obviously cannot say of a certainty that this is the case here. I only know
that during two visits, even after consecutive quizzing, our servers still did
not mention the price of the next item proffered for consideration. Either they
did not get the hint or they had received instructions not to reveal the price
of a given item unless it was specifically requested by the
customer. Interestingly enough, prices of daily specials are also conspicuously
absent from a sign posted outside the restaurant.
Since perception is all, it seems to me that it behooves the proprietors to
put this matter to rest by making the disclosure of prices for those items not
listed on the regular printed menu as unambiguous and aboveboard as humanly
I thoroughly enjoyed my visits to La Mezzaluna and would gladly
return. When it comes to the matter of daily specials, however, until the
restaurant sees fit to change its policy, the best defense is a good offense.
Ask, or... caveat emptor!
Cuisine: Regional Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs,
5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00
Credit Cards: All major
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Highly recommended; essential on weekends
Parking: Limited street parking and nearby parking garages
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
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