Exceptional Balance

Mezzaluna Gateway

9901 Capital of Texas Hwy (Gateway Market Shopping Center), 372-8030

Mon-Thu, 11am-10:30pm;
Fri, 11am-11pm;
Sat, 5-11pm; Sun, 5-10pm

photograph by John Anderson

The opening of this younger sibling of the popular warehouse district see-and-be-scene restaurant was eagerly anticipated by Northwest patrons last year. The new Mezzaluna opened to swarming crowds and never seemed to get the chance to catch its breath. Problems developed early, necessitating a chef change in the first few months. Both written reviews and word of mouth were scathing, although business continued to be strong. The opening struggles at this eatery offer a textbook demonstration of the Chronicle policy against reviewing restaurants until they've been open at least four to six months. Though we love breaking the story of any new restaurant as much as the next guys, the policy gives newcomers and experienced restaurateurs alike the opportunity to put their best food and service forward when it's time to be reviewed. When we visited Mezzaluna Gateway in January, chef Will Packwood and the staff had successfully established their equilibrium.

The glittering early dining crowd appeared to be heading to the myriad inaugural balls when we arrived in time for our 8pm reservation. The downstairs bar, curving pizza counter, and cigar room were full of chatting patrons as we ascended the long, swooping staircase to the chic upstairs dining room. Tastefully appointed in soothing colors and fabrics, the new Mezzaluna is a study in curves and circles, somewhat of a departure from architect Dick Clark's usual hard industrial style. The overall effect is pleasant and comfortable, with soft light emanating from the luminous round overhead fixtures.

Dinner got off to a slow start with a basket of cold bread accompanied by a fruity olive oil, but things immediately looked up with the arrival of our chosen soups and salads. The house Caesar ($5) offers crisp hearts of romaine lettuce tossed with shaved Parmesan and a Caesar dressing with a distinctive mustardy tang. Another of our salad choices, the Insalata Stagione ($6), was an inviting selection of mixed field greens with red onion and tomato simply dressed in good olive oil and lemon juice. The only mystery here was why such a wonderful salad was served with a mealy, out-of-season tomato. With the great variety of winter greens available locally, why anyone would willingly serve a tasteless tomato in January is just beyond my comprehension. Better to save fresh tomato salads such as Insalata Caprese and fresh tomato garnishes for the summer, when they can truly shine, instead of settling for their pale imitations in the winter. The Zuppa del Giorno ($6) was a velvety purée of potatoes and fennel, just enough to whet the appetite for what was to come.

Our entree choices reflected the diversity of chef Packwood's solid menu. The vegetarian choice was Risotto al Giardino ($10.50), a creamy rice creation cooked in flavorful vegetable broth with squash, eggplant, onions, garlic, and porcini mushrooms. The Fusilli con Aragostine ($11) reminded my dining companions of New Orleans Italian restaurants, with their curly pasta enrobed in a spicy red pepper cream sauce studded with a bountiful supply of sweet Louisiana crawfish tails. The Pesce del Giorno and Fileto di Manzo (market price) was a perfectly cooked redfish fillet under a subtle fennel crust, bathed in a glorious buerre blanc sauce with a side dish of crisp roasted potatoes. I chose the Fileto ($21), a fist-sized steak of beef tenderloin capped with gorgonzola shavings with a red wine demi-glace. The beef was cooked exactly to my specifications and arrived on a bed of tasty Parmesan mashed potatoes with a side order of sautéed baby spinach. It made a delicious, comforting meat-and-potatoes meal that made the most of the quality of each ingredient. After the dinner plates had been cleared, we all remarked about the exceptionally good balance of the meal. Good rice, good pasta, good fish and beef -- and each dish perfectly proportioned, leaving us just enough room for dessert.

The dessert menu offers six sweet temptations from pastry chef Michelle Haram, plus a list of ports and dessert wines by the glass and the bottle. Our helpful waiter convinced me to sample the Gianduia Terrine ($6.50), a dense half-moon (mezzaluna) of bittersweet chocolate and hazelnut mousse, with raspberry sauce and a melting scoop of espresso gelato. It was a splendid suggestion. One of our companions opted for a martini glass filled with scoops of refreshing sorbettos ($6.50) in mango, ruby red grapefruit, and orange, with crunchy biscotti as a counterpoint. The least successful choice was Panna Cotta di Moca ($6), a traditional Italian custard flavored with chocolate and espresso, where the satisfying flavor match was marred by an unfortunate Jello-like texture.

Throughout the evening, service was friendly and helpful without being intrusive. Water glasses were refilled frequently and replacement silverware appeared when necessary. The pace of the meal was enjoyable, and the noise level in the dining room was never a problem, as it can be in the popular downtown Mezzaluna. We left the dining room via the convenient elevator and walked out through a bar that was still doing a brisk business at 10pm. Altogether a pleasant experience and one we're eager to repeat.

After such a successful dinner visit, I returned to Mezzaluna Gateway to sample the downstairs fare. Bar patrons can order appetizers and pizzas from the wood-fired ovens when they're in a hurry or just not hungry enough for the full upstairs treatment. We slipped into the bar one Saturday afternoon and enjoyed glasses of Pinot Grigio with a Salsicce con Origano pizza ($8) and a Margherita pizza ($7) fresh from the wood-fired oven. The pizzas are more than enough for one person and plenty for two as a first course. The crusts have a pleasantly smoky taste from their contact with the floor of the ultra-hot oven, and the toppings are simple and flavorful. Pizzas are available at both lunch and dinner, as well as during the afternoons between the two shifts. The fact that the pizza bar is always packed attests to the pies' simple, straightforward quality. If an uneven meal or less than enthusiastic word of mouth has kept you away from Mezzaluna Gateway, our most recent visits indicate that you won't be disappointed if you give it another chance.

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