Howard dining: Luna Bella

It could be said that restaurant years are like dog years: The actual number is far less than the reality. This is particularly true for individually owned eateries like Luna Bella in the Hickory Ridge Village Center. So when owners Celeste Gebler and Joe Iacia celebrate Luna Bella’s 13th anniversary next month, they have a lot to crow about.

It’s fairly easy to figure out why Luna Bella has lasted so long. The aura is lively in this village center trattoria. The small space -- only 69 official indoor seats (more outside, in season) -- features a welcoming decor in a pair of dining areas. Some “stained-glass” panels at the windows and some wall hangings like mirrors and oils and prints evoke the “old” country. At dinner, white tablecloths over black ones add a bit of elegance to the casual ambiance, which, due to the restaurant’s size, is quite cozy.

You can get chianti at Luna Bella, or beer or even a mixed drink. Although the bar is hidden away in the back, its offerings add to the fun. What also adds to the fun, in our estimation, is that there’s not even one television on the premises. If you can wrench the cell phones away from your dining companions, you might even be able to have a conversation with them, or even with your neighbors.

Most of the recipes used here were devised by Gebler and Iacia, both of whom had years of restaurant experience before they decided to partner up and open their own eatery. Some even come from Iacia’s Italian grandmother, which should give you an idea of their culinary style. Call it “classic,” with emphasis on southern Italian, although the kitchen also evokes northern Italy in such dishes as veal Dominic and fettuccine Alfredo. Virtually everything you’d expect to find on such a menu is here. From garlic bread to Caesar salad, from chicken Parmesan to linguine with clam sauce, from lasagna to eggplant Parmesan. Plus some popular pizza and calzones, including build-your-own options. Weekend chef’s specials can be more representative of northern Italian favorites, like the seafood pot pie we lucked into one Friday night.

All are quite reasonably priced (although the antipasti seem a bit dear), proffered in ample servings by personable, knowledgeable staff.

One challenge to setting up as a purveyor of classic Italian fare is that most of us have eaten (and eaten) virtually all of the dishes before and probably have preconceived notions of just how each dish should taste. Ergo, it behooves the kitchen to make certain it provides excellent versions of each traditional offering. Luna Bella seems to manage that just fine.

Thus, “traditional garlic bread” ($5.25) was buttery, fragrant, crunchy outside, soft inside. 

A field green and Gorgonzola salad ($6.50/small) was a skosh more contemporary, with “exotic” field greens, sliced ripe pears, chopped walnuts and dates (adding interesting texture), plus salty-tangy Gorgonzola in a light balsamic vinaigrette. This could make a lovely lunch.

Talk about classic: Spaghetti and meat sauce ($10) tempted one of our number, especially with the addition of a couple of plump, soft, meaty meatballs. The pasta was perfectly al dente, nicely meaty and mildly herbed, imparting a welcome fresh feel to the whole. 

Chicken picatta ($16.50, and there’s also a veal option) was a very generous serving of thin, moist, tender chicken breast medallions that had been sautéed in butter, lemon juice and capers and was served on a bed of penne noodles, the pale combo enlivened with bright green broccoli and orange baby carrots.

You can get linguine with clam sauce in white or red versions for $17. We chose the white, as we always do. And it was pretty much like we usually make it, with garnishes of whole little neck clams added to the generous supply of canned clams. Comforting indeed, with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A mite salty, but acceptable.

This being a Friday night, weekend chef’s specials were in effect. So we ordered a seafood pot pie ($28). This was a charming cassoulet featuring ginormous sea scallops, large shrimp, even lobster tail, all gently simmered in a silky lobster cream sauce and baked under a dome of flaky puff pastry. All in all, it was an upscale and most welcome departure from the Friday-fish-day tradition of our youth.

As mentioned, portions were ample, and since we enjoyed a lick-your-plate-clean kind of meal, we eschewed dessert.

It seemed to us that Gebler and Iacia have devised a keep-coming-back approach to traditional Italian fare. Indeed, Gebler will tell you they have established a goodly cadre of regulars over the years, people who brought their little kids in when they and the eatery were young, and who now are teenagers and beyond. She’ll add that people have gotten engaged under her roof, and even married. And that’s probably the greatest testimonial to just how welcome, and successful, the right kind of neighborhood restaurant can be.


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