By Sondra Katkin
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Bella Luna shimmers with bright colors, a festive atmosphere that fires up your expectations of food bursting with equally bright flavors. And they deliver! My husband Steve and I dined there recently, and in the convivial bonhomie of the crowded dining room where voice levels rose and fell, we felt we were on our own island of culinary contentment, totally entertained by the four-course interactive drama we had just completed. Steve was especially pleased since he could eat the dishes usually forbidden in an Italian restaurant for gluten abstainers. Owner Harry Stephens told me that they are developing a unique gluten free menu with choices that allow the restricted to enjoy breaded meats, pastas, breads and desserts — usually unthinkable. He called it a menu where you “select not settle.” While I ate the regular preparations, I sampled Steve’s (the “itsy bitsy” pieces he would allow) and enjoyed his commensurately delicious selections.
Stephens, a former New Yorker whose grandparents were Italian, is a consultant who advises future restauranteurs. He asks them, “What could you offer that’s different?” From the Manhattan quality of his food to his talented chef and professional wait staff, he certainly knows the answer. “We try to do things at Bella Luna that separate us from other Italian restaurants. We are a 100 percent Italian restaurant and we do regional menus. Since the three provinces across the top of Italy were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Sicily was invaded so frequently, there are various cuisines we can feature.” He added, “Rome has a large Jewish population and when the menu highlighted that city, I did some significantly Jewish dishes. We’ve had fusion cooking for generations. We were also the first to do half price bottles of wine on Wednesdays.” He believes that Cincinnati is a terrific city. “I was lured here by Gay, the beautiful red head I married. The gospel according to Gay is that this is the best place to raise children.” He loves our parks, our world-class museums and the ease of mobility. “I will always be a New Yorker, but Cincinnati is my home,” he noted. His wife manages View in Edgecliff, their other highly regarded restaurant.
Executive chef Alfio Gulisano, who is generous and talented, prepared Steve’s special gluten free meal prior to the unveiling of the new menu and also surprised him with bread pudding, their signature dessert. I couldn’t tell the difference between his and mine, but I could tell that this is a unique and delicious dessert. It combines chocolate chips at their melting point with blueberries firm enough to pop and meld with the bread, baked to the exact right texture so that its moistness is not mousse, but still retains its smooth texture. Topped by a butter amaretto sauce, it made the dish glow. I was jealous — his portion was larger than mine. However, the chef treated me to three smaller desserts — a fancy flight of festive food — that included the pudding, a meltingly delicious tiramisu and a mascarpone-nutella layered cheesecake, a masterpiece of opulence and creaminess. A guest passing by said, “I wish I had ordered that.”
However, a dining editor can not live by dessert alone. Whatever! Our other courses also qualified to create envy in other diners. We began sharing a redolent roulatini of thinly sliced eggplant stuffed with cheeses and (gluten free) breadcrumbs, basil and fresh tomato sauce. This portion was enough for an entree. The eggplant roll was tender and custardy with its cheese stuffing giving it just enough body to barely stay on your fork with minimal chewing effort necessary — tasty work. (Other “antipasti” include bruschetta, eggplant meatballs, baked cheese filled mushroom caps and a choice of three soups.) This was followed by their goat cheese salad — a green spinach canvas painted with strawberries, candied pecans, red onion and sliced apples, resembling red bordered sails floating on a cloud of goat cheese crumbles. A savory vinaigrette of pomegranate and quince gave it a sweet-tart finish. The bread, a basket of flavorful focaccia, baked every four hours, accompanied by herbed butter was placed on the table wrapped in a red napkin like a gift. I avoid butter because it’s fattening and can disguise the true taste of the bread. In this case, I felt it was obligatory to try it. The sweet butter, combined with salty garlic and ending with the satisfyingly sharp bite of oregano became my focus and nearly overcame my good intentions to save some appetite for our next course. Beware the butter!
I found my enthusiasm hadn’t waned when I tasted the award-winning seafood ravioli with saffron sauce and the stuffed cannelloni (both won “Best of Cincinnati”). A classic combination of tender tubes of pasta stuffed with and covered by the freshest cheeses and tangy marinara, it was a perfect rendition of my ideal Italian style food. Steve’s “breaded” parmegiana entree with (a corn) pasta elicited, “Best I’ve ever had!” At the conclusion of our dinner, Steve said, “There was a quality to everything that was just terrific; you wouldn’t find better in New York City.” Note to gluten free folks: Call ahead until the new menu is completed. All entrees are served with bread and salad and include award-winning osso buco, trout with truffle, sole Florentina, USDA prime lamb chops, Tuscan grilled New York Strip and several choices of chicken. Diners also may create their own pasta dishes with the “gravy” of their choice.
Bella Luna features a full service bar. For oenophiles, Stephens said, “We have wines to satisfy everyone’s palate — very food friendly; we want the wine to compliment the food, not overpower it.” Those who linger in the bar area on Friday and Saturday nights will be treated to live music by the Bluebirds accompanied by the host, Harry Stephens crooning his mellow tunes for the crowd of appreciative listeners. Private party rooms are available. Their hours are from 4:30 – 9 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday; 4:30 – 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 4:30 – 11p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed on Monday.
4632 Eastern Avenue
Cincinnati, OH 45226