by Mel Small
At first glance, one wonders why Zharko and Dena Palushaj came up with Mezzaluna when they were searching for a name for their Sterling Heights restaurant six years ago. After all, that was the name of the fashionable spot in Brentwood where Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were last seen alive. But despite that connotation, the Palushajs are not the only restaurateurs fond of the name. An Internet search reveals that scores of Mezzaluna signs hang over unrelated trattorias from Macao to London to Jacksonville.
Mezzaluna means half moon. In a play on words, it also refers to the blades of a kitchen tool used to chop vegetables. Mezzaluna certainly sounded Italian and romantic to Zharko, who never thought about the "unsolved" crime of the last century when he renamed the old Tirami Su on Metro Parkway just west of Van Dyke Road. An Albanian from Montenegro, he learned the Italian restaurant business in New York before coming to Michigan.
Although the basic configuration of Tirami Su remains the same, the Palushajs redecorated tastefully, replacing an artificial grape arbor that used to divide the dining room with a more dignified columned portico. Covered with heavy white cloths, the tables in the center of the room are bordered by slightly elevated booths along one wall and a cozy private dining nook along the other. The dining room seats as many as 140, while a comfortable lounge, which features music on weekends, can handle another 40.
Offering classic Italian fare in elegant surroundings, Mezzaluna is blessed with highly professional, liveried servers who lend an unintimidating air of continental sophistication rarely found in restaurants in such an accessible price niche.
While examining the four-page menu, one can nibble on warm, cheese-infused focaccia and crusty Italian farm bread. Much will seem familiar, but even the familiar items often reveal a unique twist or two. Among the appetizers, for example, although sausages and peppers ($12) appear on comparable menus, the Palushajs employ large banana peppers in their rendition and then toss in sliced potatoes to accompany the sausage in a gentle white-wine sauce. Similarly, the somewhat bland baby-squid rings ($9) are enlivened immeasurably with a zesty tomato-based ammoglio sauce.
When Arban, our waiter, brought the appetizers we planned to share, he deftly composed individualized antipasti for the four of us, without being asked. We also could have ordered regular antipasto, shrimp cocktail or Little Neck clams in an oil-garlic-white-wine and tomato sauce, among the usual suspects one would expect to find in an old-fashioned ristorante Italiano.
Although one might be tempted to go for the Mezzaluna salad ($10) that consists of greens, mushrooms, tomatoes, cannelloni beans, olives, peppers and goat cheese, the green salad that comes with dinner is fresh and crisp and the house creamy Italian is pleasantly tangy. A worthy alternative is a cup of minestrone that's more complex than usual.
The mains on the menu begin with fresh and dry pasta. When I asked Arban why anyone would order dry over fresh, he explained that the house-made variety tends to be heavier than the store-bought. To an untutored palate, it is difficult to tell the difference. Among the fresh pastas, tagliolini monte mare is the most expensive and the most elaborate ($23). This take on tutto mare, which features only jumbo shrimp as the nautical centerpiece, surrounds the little fellows with roasted tomatoes, spinach and wild mushrooms over linguini bathed in a white-wine tomato-porcini sauce. Other pastas include baci pappalina, purse-shaped pasta stuffed with four cheeses, several gnocchis and penne dolce vita that does resemble a traditional tutto mare.
Zharko takes pride in the fact that most of his seafood is flown in from Boston's fabled Foley's. Such was the case with the flounder-oregenato special ($21) one night, which, though slightly overbaked, was redeemed by the delicate white-wine sauce. All non-pasta mains come with carrots al dente and a crunchy potato croquette instead of a pasta side.
Zharko takes similar pride in the top-round, milk-fed veal in his traditional piccante ($21), accompanied by artichokes and untraditional caper berries. Some may find the portion a bit undersized, but such is the price one pays for quality veal. More complicated veal-centered dishes involve tomatoes, basil, shallots, mushrooms and mozzarella or eggplant, tomatoes, prosciutto and mozzarella.
As with most of the preparations at Mezzaluna, the wine sauces more than complement the meat, fish or fowl. A case in point in the latter category is pollo rigoletto ($18): The chicken breast sautéed with garlic, rosemary, pine nuts and red peppers would be merely decent without the lemony white-wine sauce.
As for the beverage of choice itself, the 15-page wine list is dominated by Italian and California vintages with choices at all price ranges, beginning at $25. It's a pleasure to see servers taking the time to decant the red wines a graceful, nearly forgotten art these days.
To top things off, desserts might include an admirable, unusually tall house-made cheesecake ($8) or a dreamy light tiramisu ($7.50).
Although Mezzaluna is not the sort of restaurant that astounds the diner, the overall experience it provides graceful service, an attractive setting and culinary creativity is commendable, even though its name conjures up less pleasant thoughts to those who read the tabloids.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.