Inviting Atmosphere Bolsters Adequate Fare in South Baltimore
Pazza Luna seemed like such a good choice for visiting California cousins. There it is, incongruously, on the end of a homey South Baltimore side street, standing oasislike on the fringes of ghostly industrial lots. On arriving, I ventured that there probably aren’t many swell-looking neighborhood joints like this back in Cupertino. There aren’t any neighborhoods at all, the cousins said. So, let’s add to our expanding list of wonderful things we in Mobtown take for granted: the lovely little neighborhood trattoria.
Pazza Luna made a big splash when Kim Acton opened it seven or so years ago in the then-obscure outreaches of Locust Point. Diners were particularly enchanted by the restaurant’s feverish henotheism, an original system that combines supreme worship of Frank Sinatra with secondary reverence paid to the garlic bulb and the decorative use of sun, moon, and stars. Until now, I never made it there, frightened off, perhaps, by reports of high prices and, frankly, a bit by the self-congratulatory tone of Acton’s welcome message on the restaurant’s web site.
Sandy and Dennis Stallings recently took over Pazza Luna’s ownership, and the first-floor Sinatra shrine remains untoppled. Even so, the Frankiephilia doesn’t feel very intense—if there was music playing, we never heard it—and it would be easy not to notice it at all. Garlic, apart from a dramatic pre-dinner appearance in the form of a half-roasted bulb from which cloves can be extracted to smush into olive oil on fresh bread, doesn’t feel any more present here than in any other Italian restaurant. Suns, moons, and stars still lavishly dominate the cozy upstairs dining rooms—on borders, charger plates, the curtains—so much so that one cousin felt like she was having dinner in a child’s bedroom.
Mostly, Pazza Luna’s romantic impulses are infectious. The meal we had was long and, for the most part, well-paced. It’s relaxing here, and this is absolutely the place you want to come with good friends to spend a convivial evening. Even so, because Pazza Luna was busier the night we visited than it had expected to be, our waitress, who seemed a bit tense, wasn’t always there when we needed her. And the food that Pazza Luna serves mostly sustains your good feelings without ever reaching operatic heights.
At its best, the food is simple and hearty. It can falter, though, from lack of impact or finesse, and it’s easy for a table’s attention to wander away from it. This is not a terrible thing to have happen—we had a good deal of fun at dinner. One of the house specials, scampi “Rao’s style” ($27), does nothing more than alternate sautéed jumbo shrimp and garlic crouton rounds around a sterling sauce of garlic, white wine, sweet butter, and Worcestershire sauce. It looked very solid and tasted fine. But in the plate’s center, a side of angel hair ($3) was clumpy and too much. Excess detracted from a plate of angel hair with tomato-basil sauce and diced fresh mozzarella ($12). The cheese oozed warmly when it was added to the pasta, and the sauce was straightforwardly good, but there was far too much of it to hold interest. Same small problem with a clams marinara appetizer ($9), littleneck clams simmered in their juices with olive oil, garlic, white wine, and marinara—a good but redundant experience that came across a little too soupy.
A grilled filet mignon ($36), a featured special, was gilded with white-truffle butter studded with black truffles. We confess to not completely getting the expensive full-truffle impact, even as we enjoyed every bit of true-tasting, tender, well-grilled beef. A pan-seared salmon fillet ($22) worked well, too, dressed up with a complementary basil-tomato beurre blanc sauce that succeeded by not overwhelming the fish.
One entrée didn’t work at all well—a veal piccata ($22) suffered from tough, beefy veal scallops. Its lemon-butter-caper sauce couldn’t have undone this damage in any event; as it was, it lacked a necessary piquancy. Pazza Luna’s preening menu prose can oversell—a chilled and lemony Caesar salad ($10) was delicious but well short of the garlic-anchovy revelation the menu suggested, and we had to work to distinguish those flavors. Sometimes, the hype is right on: Pazza Luna’s pan-seared eggplant ($7), topped with fresh mozzarella and breadcrumbs, really is sublime, meltingly tender, and luscious.
Pazza Luna impressed the cousins but didn’t astound them. It’s a charming place, but a bit expensive, and, although it shoots for the stars, Pazza Luna ultimately remains earthbound.