Amid the range of dining options in the Gaslamp, one shines brighter than the rest: Bella Luna. The Italian restaurant, which opened in 1992, is one of the oldest restaurants on 5th Avenue; its success clearly stems from the stunning cuisine that comes from its kitchen. Chef Vito Sciannamea prides himself on quality and freshness, ensuring that pastas are made on premises, vegetables arrive fresh from the farm, and house-made sauces are so vibrant that you can taste individual ingredients. Dishes range from simple to decadent, spanning the range of regional Italian cuisine. If you can, save room for dessert—they are prepared in house and are nothing short of beautiful.Read More ...
The words effortlessly, almost lyrically, roll off the tongue: Bella Luna. As they escape the lips they conjure images of romance, mystery, and tranquility. The beautiful moon—poets have celebrated it, philosophers contemplated it, and space missions made it a destination. And, on bustling 5th Avenue in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, a charming Italian restaurant pays homage to it: Bella Luna.
I happen to enter Bella Luna on a particularly sunny summer evening, long before the moon appears in the sky. Perhaps because of my timing, the first thing I notice is not the moon, but the sun: the one-room restaurant boasts a gleefully sunny setting. The two-story space is bright and airy, with an enormous window above the entrance letting natural light stream in. Three of the walls are a glowing pale yellow, and the ceiling is painted in a cheerful cloudscape. As the sun’s light graces the room’s natural surfaces—pale beech and clay tile floors, an exposed brick wall, wrought iron rails—I wonder if the restaurant shouldn’t be named Bella Sole.
Then I spot the artwork—oversized square paintings that tile the sunny yellow walls. There must be 30 of them, each celebrating a different phase, vantage point, or property of that mystical orb that circles our planet. There are crescents and circles; close-ups of its mysterious face and far away glimpses from down on earth. There are watercolors, oils, and sculptures, and together the diverse collection forms a most fitting tribute to the beautiful moon.
Transfixed by the array on the walls, we are brought back to earth by the smiling and gracious Johan Haman, Bella Luna’s General Manager, who offers to show us to our table. While the booths in the back of the restaurant look quite comfortable, we opt for a table near the front, enticed by the warm evening air wafting through the open entrance. We are not alone—there are already several tables filled on the patio and the two prime indoor tables—one in each alcove alongside the entrance—are also occupied. At one, a couple shares an intimate dinner, at the other a jolly table of 6 laughs over drinks and contemplates ordering. Both seem to be taking advantage of the restaurant's early evening dining special, which from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. offers a three-course meal for just $26.00.
In good spirits, we settle into our own table and elect to begin the evening with glasses of Zardetto Prosecco. As we sip the crisp, effervescent brut, we realize we are in good hands—our server, Elias, is eagerly offering recommendations and suggestions from both menu and wine list.
Bella Luna's menu is eminently approachable, with just two pages of antipasti, insalate, pasta, and entrees. While the selection is modest, there seems no shortage of choices, and each dish entices us more than the last. Traditional Italian classics sit alongside unique interpretations, and we aim to sample a bit of both. Permeating the menu is a sense of freshness, with house-made pastas, organic greens, and fresh seafood. For Executive Chef Vito Sciannamea, quality reigns supreme, as we are soon to see.
We begin with the Calamari Fritti, which at once demonstrates the kitchen’s values of freshness and quality. A generous array of calamari sits atop a bed of baby greens, accompanied by lemon wedges and a boat of marinara sauce. The calamari are plump and succulent, almost moist with flavor. Barely breaded, the tender pale rings hide behind a crisp, thin coating, and are so flavorful they stand alone. Yet, the marinara sauce is itself rich and full of flavor, and each scoop of the velvety, slightly tangy red sauce adds a savory dimension to each bite. The dish emanates Italian, setting the mood and suggesting the flavors for the dishes to come.
Chef Sciannamea, we learn, loves to work with seafood, and we forgo the highly recommended carpaccio in favor of another seafood dish, the Gamberini Imperialle. An array of plump jumbo shrimp surround a zucchini cup filled with goat cheese, elegantly drizzled with a dark and enticing smoked tomato sauce. The goat cheese is deliciously tart, and a welcome accompaniment to the tender, slightly sweet shrimp.
The Tenera salad is a refreshing interlude, a mixture of baby romaine, frisée, and arugula leaves, with Gorgonzola cheese and crushed hazelnuts. Thick slivers of pear and tomato line the plate, and the entire salad is tossed with a subtle blueberry vinegar dressing. The earthy arugula is the star of the dish—hidden among the tender romaine, each leaf is a gem of vibrant earthiness. The hazelnuts are sweet, almost moist with flavor, and the pear and tomato resonate freshness. We enjoy the last of our prosecco, whose light acidity is a perfect accompaniment to the fresh, earthy greens.
Invigorated, we move to our pasta course, which surprises us with an inspired range of flavors and approaches. While all of our dishes feature house-made pastas, fresh cheese, and house-made sauces, each is utterly distinct, providing us with a trio of dishes that seem to span the culinary range of the Italian peninsula. Accompanying us on our journey are two versatile wines—a 2005 Mark West Pinot Noir, and an elegant Chianti Classico from Castello Banfi.
The Linguini Margherita comes straight from Sicily, its fresh, bold flavors an homage to the sea. The presentation is impressive: a large bowl overflowing with fresh linguini, wilted basil, and decidedly fresh diced tomatoes is surrounded by a medley of bivalves—clams, mussels and scallops—plus plump shrimp and pale white rings of calamari. While the bowl is very much a visual feast we waste no time dismantling its architecture—twirling the thick ribbons of linguini, pulling plump mussels from their shells, and savoring the fresh tomatoes and fresher seafood. Each bite is fresh and lively, a mingling of sweet tomatoes, salty shellfish, and perfectly al dente ribbons.
Next we move up Italy's southwest coast, with a rich and comforting Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina. A vibrant dish of plump, house-made potato nuggets, thick marinara sauce, and a melted blanket of mozzarella cheese bursts with flavor. The dish is the definition of comfort: the pillowy nuggets spun from potato and ricotta, the sauce rich and tangy, and the mozzarella adding a luscious and decadent fullness to each bite. The clearly fresh gnocchi are gleefully addictive, the perfectly formed pillows almost dissolving into luscious cream on the tongue.
For our final pasta dish we travel to northern Italy, with the Ravioli di Pere, the most unique, and palate-arresting dish of the meal. The sauce, a blanket of golden ivory, is made of mascarpone and walnuts; it is more luscious and complex than anything I’ve tasted. Beneath the silky mascarpone lies an even more delightful discovery—house made ravioli squares filled with bursting, sweet pears. The dish is elegant luxury, a weaving of ethereal tastes that are both rich and sweet, and which somehow improve with each bite. I don't want my time with it to end.
But end it does, and I don’t linger for long. Our main courses prove to be so full of flavor that, despite the richness of our pasta course, our appetites are reawakened. Elias brings crisp glasses of Anderson Valley Gewürztraminer along with two delightfully unique interpretations of Italian cuisine.
The Spigola Arrosto features Italian-herb-crusted Alaskan halibut in a light ginger lemongrass sauce. The halibut filet is balanced delicately atop a firm ball of mashed potatoes, sharing the pool of sauce with market-fresh baby carrots, summer squash, and broccoli rabe. The gently breaded fish is succulently tender and moist, almost creamy, but not quite as creamy as the tart, savory sauce that accompanies it. Each bite of the moist fish resonates of herbs, and, I decide, actually tastes like Italy. The accompanying vegetables are not neglected—the squash and carrots are gently firm, and the leafy broccoli rabe is deliciously buttery.
The Faggottino di Vitello—two stuffed veal tenderloins served with natural jus—is triumphant. The lightly browned tenderloins are delicate, almost sweet, and the meat cuts easily to reveal pockets of creamy smoked mozzarella and tender wild mushrooms. The filling bursts with flavor, the boldness of the mushrooms and cheese serving to ground the ethereal taste of the veal. The meat sits in a luscious pool of beet-colored jus, which seeps into its accompaniments, infusing starchy potatoes and buttery baby vegetables with a subtle veal flavor.
We pause before dessert, but ultimately order two tempting house-made concoctions. The Tiramisu is eminently fresh, the sweet layers of coffee-soaked lady fingers and mascarpone revealing a clear contrast in texture. The flavors are light, not sweet, putting many other versions of this ubiquitous dish to shame. The Tartufo, a simple concept of ice cream rolled in chocolate powder, is enchanting. A delicate powder of bittersweet chocolate and cinnamon covers chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and a hidden center of chocolate chips. The bittersweet chocolate somehow tames the sweetness of the cream, and the surprise core of chocolate chips brings a child-like smile to my face.
Finishing our desserts, along with an excellent Limoncello digestif, we bid farewell to what has proven a wonderfully charming meal. Of all the sometimes-overwhelming options in the Gaslamp, it is refreshing to find a modest, longstanding restaurant where an emphasis on simplicity and quality promise an outstanding dining experience. As we leave the restaurant, I am so satisfied I forget to look up, but there in the sky, just barely in its first quarter, a glistening sliver of silver light follows us home. Che bella luna indeed.
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Every day from 3:00p.m. to 7:00p.m. ~Includes one glass of house wine~