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La Mezzaluna
25 Witherspoon Street
Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 688-8515

By 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 possible.

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 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Highly recommended; essential on weekends
Parking: Limited street parking and nearby parking garages
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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