Restaurant Review: Pazza Luna has glow of success

The Pazza Luna logo features the Italian version of the Harlequin character — the arlecchino. That is apt, because this is one tricky little trattoria. Pazza Luna has been known to change identity or disappear entirely. You must never think you've outsmarted Pazza Luna, though. Just when you think it's gone into hiding, up he shows, turning back flips.

Chef Davide Rossi and his wife, Christa, have been running Pazza Luna since early this year and, based on my recent weeknight visit there, they have earned — and deserve — a loyal following. The upstairs dining room, looking well-tended, was attracting its share of diners. But it is downstairs, in the cheerful dining area around the bar, that Pazza Luna feels like a proper neighborhood trattoria. This is where the locals like to dine. Rossi is from Milan, and his menu and his cooking feel focused and purposeful. It's a pleasure to be here.

If Pazza Luna were software, this would be version 2.1. There was Kim Acton's launch version in 1999, which was known for its Sinatra shrine and elaborate blue-and-gold celestial motifs. The current generation of Pazza Luna began in 2007, when the property was taken over by Riccardo Bosio, the chef/owner of downtown's Sotto Sopra. Much of the whimsy was stripped away, Gianfranco Fracassetti was installed as chef, and an era of new authenticity was announced. Then, suddenly last winter, Fracassetti was gone, and the Rossis were in.

And if Pazza Luna were software, you'd be aware of its, well, quirks. Was it an unpredictably busy weeknight, or does Pazza Luna always try to make do with one waiter and one bartender? They valiantly managed to keep it together, but they were overextended, and it mattered. A busser, or a host, would have made a huge difference. Bread is brought to the table in a brown paper bag, its top folded down. This would be rustic, or cute, if the bread and rolls were homemade, or even an interesting import.

But you won't be thinking of these things the morning after a meal at Pazza Luna. Instead, you'll be remembering the marvelous bresaola appetizer, a generous display of paper-thin dried beef that Rossi tops with shaved parmesan, celery, mixed greens and snow-white dollops of smooth and very creamy goat-cheese mousse. It's just the kind of arousing appetizer I love, one that wakes up all of the taste buds. A fritto misto appetizer is note-perfect. The real flavor and texture of shrimp, scallops and calamari are preserved under the gentlest of frying — they almost don't need the warm and full-bodied tomato dipping sauce that accompanies them. By comparison, a plate of jumbo shrimp sautéed with garlic and brandy is less involving. Though had good bread been within reach, we would have used it to sop up the well-tempered sauce.

The house salad is not very distinguished, but the Caesar is. The homemade dressing has a bold anchovy flavor that you seldom meet in restaurants these days. A palate-cleansing vodka sorbet ($4 each) is intended as a grace note — but a complimentary, nonalcoholic version would have made a better impression.

For a main course, diners can choose from lists of pastas, risotto dishes and traditional entrees, in all, about two dozen options. We chose rather well, we thought. (Although, when I mentioned the Pazza Luna trip to a friend, she was devastated that I didn't order the handmade ravioli stuffed with blue crab and mascarpone, which Rossi sautes with spinach and a sherry reduction and finishes with crispy prosciutto. That does sound good; I wonder how we missed it.)

The risotto al manzo begins with a foundation of perfectly handled parmesan risotto, onto which Rossi places slices of grilled, herb-encrusted beef tenderloin, all finished with a red-wine and truffle demi-glace. Also highly recommended — the capesante scottate, a beautifully arranged presentation of pan-seared jumbo sea scallops over lengthwise slices of grilled zucchini, and all of it heightened by a vivid green, just-picked herb sauce.

We liked the two pasta dishes we tried — a penne with Bolognese and a linguine al frutti di mare. The seafood pasta has a notably fine white-wine tomato herb sauce, the Bolognese an emphatically good bechamel. I think I'd save them, though, for Pazza Luna's new Monday-night family pasta dinners — like many pasta dishes, their returns begin to diminish after the first few bites.

There is a short list of homemade desserts. One that we tried was excellent — a single cannoli shell filled with smooth, sweetened ricotta. The other was even better — a decidedly decadent and impossibly delicate panna cotta.

This was the first time at Pazza Luna, reviewing or not, when I sat downstairs. Jazz standards were playing, and diners were conversing contentedly. It sounded just like the soundtrack of a movie that's set in a popular neighborhood trattoria.

Pazza Luna

Where: 1401 E. Clement St., Locust Point

Contact: 410-962-1212,

Hours: Open seven days a week for dinner (note that Mondays are family-style pasta dinners)

Prices: Appetizers, $10-12 Entrees, $16-29

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or uneven; ✭: Poor]

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