Four of Austin's most reliable downtown restaurants keep on pleasing

Right Place, Right Time


310 Colorado, 472-6770

Monday-Thursday, 11:30am-10:30pm; Friday, 11:30am-11pm; Saturday, 5-11pm; Sunday, 5-10:30pm
In the early Nineties, Mezzaluna was the only game in town for upscale Italian cuisine. In those days, the wait regularly topped two hours as the city's tony set swilled Bellinis at the bedazzled and oftentimes overcrowded bar. But as Austin's restaurant scene has matured, Mezzaluna has seen some stiff competition for the city's gourmands. These days, the restaurant doesn't pack 'em in the way it used to. Nevertheless, the food at this Austin warhorse is better than ever. Over the past several years, owner Reed Clemons has scaled back and refocused the business on the cuisine, rather than the scene. The dishes reflect Clemons' yearly pilgrimages to Italy, and are inspired by that country's regional cuisines.

Gone are the heavy cheese and cream toppings of Mezzaluna's early days. Instead, grilled salmon with seared polenta, onions, and a spicy garlic broth, or grilled beef tenderloin glazed with intense wine reductions evoke the clean aesthetics of classic Italian cookery. "I've tried to make them simpler, with more emphasis on the way the plates look, and the way the foods go together," says Clemons. Assisting him in that task is chef Marcus Antilla, who came up through the ranks over the years at Mezzaluna. With the confidence of a skilled tradesperson, Antilla ensures that Clemons' vision materializes on the plate.

Indeed, the foods at today's Mezzaluna look and taste gorgeous. Mussels with garlic parsley and wine ($9) were simply some of the best I have ever tasted. Piled into a wide, ample bowl, the chubby mollusks were perfectly cooked (which, believe it or not, is rare), and practically bursting with seawater. After applying an entire basket of bread to soak up the heavenly garlic and butter-infused broth, I was tempted to put bowl to mouth and drink the last drops. Our Carpaccio ($8.50) appetizer regrettably paled next to the strong flavors of the mussels, though on its own, it, too, would have been magic. Mezzaluna's rendition of this well-known Italian standard follows a classic preparation, with thin-sliced salt-cured beef that seems to have been lightly seared, rather than served altogether raw. The slices are then sprinkled with shaved parmesan, fresh bitter greens, and a zesty mustard vinaigrette.

I was delighted by light-as-air Gnocchi ($15.50), lounging in mushroom and (purportedly) truffle-scented cream, garnished with roasted chicken. It was frankly excellent, though I was a little disappointed that the advertised truffles seemed to be absent from the plate or as a flavor in the sauce. My companion ordered a Crab-Stuffed Trout ($19.50). Served skin-on, and enclosing a delicately flavored crab and sweet pepper stuffing, this dish was skillfully presented. The fish rested above brightly colored asparagus and grilled yellow squash, and was accented by lemony béarnaise-ish sauce. All of the individual components were adeptly prepared, but for some reason, the ensemble failed to become more than the sum of its parts. The fish itself, while impeccably fresh, lacked enough spicing to stand up to the other bold flavors on the plate – a fixable flaw in an otherwise well-executed meal.

The desserts I tried were unassailable, if a little typical. Mezzaluna's tiramisu ($6.50) is as traditional as it comes. No whipped cream fillings or showy chocolate layers here – Mezzaluna's tiramisu is nothing but rum-soaked ladyfingers layered with sweetened egg yolks mixed with mascarpone, accented by just a hint of powdered chocolate. Their crème brûlée ($6.50) was textbook perfect, with a hard sugar topping enclosing velvety vanilla-scented custard. I was tempted to order a second.

The voluminous wine list features excellent affordable bottles, in addition to mouthwatering big-ticket varieties from around the globe. After almost 15 years, the Dick Clark-designed space still dazzles as it scrolls and spills across multiple partitions and levels like a wild waterfall. Well-trained and informed waitstaff anticipate the diner's needs before he or she has had a chance to articulate them, expertly advising on specials, replacing lost silverware, and refilling drained wine glasses. Though the freshman buzz over Mezzaluna may have finally faded, this veteran restaurant is at the top of its game.

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