By Mario Fusco
Yesterday was a wonderful day. What made it wonderful was our visit to Mezza Luna (Half Moon in Italian), the Italian restaurant in Halfmoon Bay which has been receiving accolades from Italian food cognoscenti for nearly two decades. Located along US101 in the harbor town of Princeton By The Sea, Mezza Luna is an easy scenic drive from San Francisco and, using highway 92, from the populated centers of the Silicon Valley.
In truth I was no stranger to Mezza Luna, but my last visit had been a couple of years earlier and my memory of it had been dulled by time. But a chance meeting in a Palo Alto bar with one of the owners, Giovanni, reminded me of it and determined me to pay it another visit. Oh happy chance meeting! We decided to drop by for lunch.
The building is as I remembered it, just past the harbor with its collection of boats and seafood specialty houses. Parking seemed to be plentiful, enough to handle high traffic evenings. We went in and were greeted immediately with friendly professionalism and solicitude. The L-shaped restaurant, the outer walls lined with tall arched windows, is airy and spacious, elegant and comfortable at the same time. The layout, with white linen tablecloths, lends itself both to intimate gatherings and to special-occasion large scale affairs. A full-service bar, likewise spacious and welcoming, is to the right of the check-in desk, as soon as you enter.
But let’s get on to the food, because this is where the real strength of this restaurant is. After we were seated one of the owners, Roberto, came to greet us (Jose is the third partner, the only non-Italian). We talked briefly about the history of the restaurants and reminisced a little about the old days in Italy. Giovanni and Roberto are both from Calabria, the toe of the peninsula. Their Italian culinary credentials are impeccable. We told Roberto that we were on an exploratory mission and that we wanted to sample small portions of the restaurant’s specialties. Roberto immediately uttered the time-honored Italian phrase that, amongst restaurateurs, bespeaks of supreme self-confidence: “Faccio io (leave it up to me)” We were only too happy to “far fare a lui”: by this time we were sipping complimentary prosecco that had put us in a very agreeable frame of mind.
There came the first sample, a carpaccio of smoked salmon iridescent under a thin film of olive oil and sprinkled with green pepper seeds. I was immediately crestfallen (I hate smoked salmon!), and told my companion that this was to be her portion, I wanted none of it. She demurely cut a sliver and put it in her mouth, and I could tell from her expression that this was no ordinary smoked salmon. Let’s cut to the chase: I tried it and it was gorgeous - none of that fishy, stale taste that I for years have associated with lox and with lesser salmon offerings. Not only did I eat my half, but ended up picking whatever little shreds were left on the plate, and mopping up the oil with a piece of bread (which, by the way, is very good).
Two other samples came simultaneously: one was a melange of mussels and clams, oven baked in a delicate broth, the other was calamari al sugo, calamari in a savory pomodoro sauce. To those used to having fried calamari this last dish will be a revelation: tasty and flavorful, the calamari had none of the toughness and rubberiness one has almost come to expect. We commented about this to Roberto, who had come to check up on us, and he explained to us some of the elaborate quality control measures they have put in place to ensure a supply of the very best fish, some from Santa Barbara, some from local fishermen. In fact, expect to find some variability in their fish menu, because so much of it is determined by the day’s catch.
Needless to say, the clam/mussel dish was likewise excellent, and, since my wife and partner confessed to a certain aversion to mussels, I was only too happy to pick up the slack and polish off the plate, ending with the obligatory mop-up-with-bread operation. Hey, someone’s gotta do it!
We then had a “small” sampling of Penne alla Calabrese. While very good, this dish was perhaps the least successful of the series: the sausage was excellent, but the mushrooms were underrepresented and the pasta itself was too reminiscent of standard pasta dishes available in lesser Italian restaurants. Nevertheless, I did it full justice. My wife made a valiant effort, but she is an anomaly amongst Italians: she does not love pasta!
The last offering arrived, and the meal ended on a high note indeed! This was a link cod dish with tomatoes and capers, very Italian and very very good, delicate and flavorful at the same time. We enjoyed it immensely, and by this time we felt that perhaps we need not eat ever again, our tummies were so full! But dessert was unavoidable, and this time it was my wife, and partner in crime at this point, who sacrificed herself. She ordered a portion of Panna Cotta, and it arrived with a sprinkling of Frutti di Bosco on top. I had a little taste and was immediately sorry that I had not ordered my own portion. Anyway, she magnanimously agreed to share, and it was a downright sinful experience.
And my espresso was not shabby, either, in fact, just the opposite!
All in all, our visit to Mezza Luna was an unqualified success, and it left me at the same time happy to have rediscovered it and regretful for the long absence. Perhaps nostalgic for the wonderful meals I could have had but didn’t, if such a thing is possible? Anyway, there isn’t going to be such a long interval until next time! Besides, my wife felt it was a delightful place for a date, so we are bound to go back soon.
A note about wines: for a variety of circumstances we kept drinking Prosecco and did not sample the restaurant’s other wines. We did check out their list, however, and it appears to be very extensive and well-balanced, with offerings mainly from both California and Italy. It is our intent to return and write a more comprehensive review that includes wines.
Complete information about Mezza Luna can be obtained from their website, mezzalunabythesea.com.