Richard Foss

Once In A Red Moon [restaurant review]

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Luna Rossa in Rolling Hills Estates delivers the classics with style

Luna Rossa manager Augusto Cali. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

by Richard Foss

I was reminded to visit a restaurant by an eclipse. No, really. You might remember that we had a super blue blood moon a while ago, and my wife and I got up before dawn to see it. It was worth a few moments of contemplation before going back indoors to get warm.

Somehow, when we went out for dinner the next evening it must have been in my mind. We went to Luna Rossa, which of course is Italian for red moon, on the second floor of the Peninsula Promenade. I had last visited in 2012, about a year after they opened, and at that time the food was uneven but showed promise. I had meant to get back soon to find out how the place matured, but somehow it took an eclipse to jog my memory.

It had been so long that I actually forgot where the entrance was – the first sign you see as you exit the parking structure is for their private dining room. (They really ought to have a sign somewhere near the bottom of the stairway pointing to the main entrance, because we weren’t the first to go all the way to the top of the stairs and then discover that you can’t get in there.) Go around the building to the right and you’ll find the escalator that will actually get you to their second floor location.

Once you‘re inside the atmosphere is old-school Italian, with a formal looking dining room just past the clubby bar by the entry. The yellow walls and natural light make the environment stylish and comfortable for a mall location.

The menu is slanted toward Northern Italy and includes the traditional pastas and both grilled items and pizzas from a wood-fired oven. This isn’t the place to go for arcane regional dishes, and the comfort food is a good match for the décor. They bring out very good housemade crusty bread to start, which shows that they’re putting that oven to good use.

My wife and I were decided to start the meal with the salmon and potato salad but decided that something lighter was in order and split a small Caesar. A generous portion of anchovies is $3.50 extra and worth it, because the sharp flavor completes what is otherwise a very mild dressing. I added a gentle sprinkle of pepper too, and my wife who usually prefers hers without agreed that it was an improvement. The portion was generous as a salad for one person and enough for a light starter for two.

We had ordered the small salad because we liked the look of two of the entrees but also wanted to try something from that oven, so had pizza as a second course. The thin, crisp crust was very good and the portion of sauce and topping moderate so no one element overshadowed another, which is true to the tradition of Naples rather than the Italian-American more-is-better idea. We had chosen the pizza that is a house specialty, a vegetarian item with eggplant, zucchini, artichoke, olives, tomato, onion, and bell pepper, and though we asked for the bell pepper to be omitted it was still a well-balanced set of flavors. The pizza was quite large and with a salad would have been a good lunch or light dinner for two.

For main courses we chose a mushroom risotto and a bowl of tortellacci pasta filled with wine-braised short rib meat in a truffled Alfredo sauce. That latter item is probably the most unusual item on the menu, since it’s a bit counterintuitive to braise beef in red wine and then stuff it in pasta in a white sauce. It works well because the shaved truffles in that sauce add a slightly muskiness that is a very good complement to meaty flavors. Our server offered some grated parmesan. It wasn’t essential but added nicely to the flavor.

The risotto was well-made and had a rich, full mushroom flavor balanced with garlic in the white wine sauce. I think I might have liked a dash more herbs in it to add complexity, but it was quite decent as it was.

We paired our meal with glasses of wine from an unexpectedly short and California-centric list. There are a many, very good Italian wines available at a price that makes them an attractive proposition by the glass, and it was surprising not to find them in a place that otherwise celebrates Italian authenticity.

We had just a little room left for dessert so decided to split what was referred to as a mini-tiramisu. The portion was actually larger than we expected, and even though we liked the light but rich cake we wouldn’t have wanted a larger portion. Unlike most of the rest of the desserts, this one is made in house and made very well, with the sweetness of the cream, slight wine flavor, and bitterness from chocolate and espresso all harmonizing. We were also offered a complimentary last item of a fritter called a frappe. This is just fried dough topped with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, a crisp little finish to the meal.  

Dinner for two with three glasses of wine ran $130, about what I’d expect for this caliber of food in this location. Luna Rossa isn’t groundbreaking but the cooking is solid, and you shouldn’t wait for a sign from the skies to stop in.

Luna Rossa is at 550 Deep Valley Drive in Rolling Hills Estates. Opens daily 11:30 a.m., closed 9 p,m. Su-Thu, 10 p.m. Fr-Sa. Full bar, corkage $25, some vegetarian items. Menu at lunarossapv.com (warning: website blasts music). Phone 310-377-0202.

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