According to urban legend, 90 percent of restaurants fail within the first year. Studies say that figure is more like 60 percent, but still — the economy these past few years hasn't done the industry any favors; many eateries that are not shuttering their doors or barely holding on have been taking out obscene loans, hiring celebrity chefs to generate buzz, or demeaning themselves with desperate appearances on reality TV.
So what did Bistro Mezzaluna do in the face of this economic downturn? In September, it vacated its space in a shopping plaza on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale and hauled all its stuff across the street into a freestanding, two-story building that's 14,000 square feet — more than four times the size of its old locale. The new space boasts two separate dining areas, one patio equipped with a tiered fountain, a spacious piano bar, and three banquet rooms on the second floor.
Was it a smart move?
"You from around here?" our waiter casually asked as we settled into an intimate booth. He had come to greet us almost immediately upon our arrival. Wearing a solid-white apron atop his dark, checkered tie and crisp shirt, he carefully poured two glasses of iced water.
I looked down at my own clothes self-consciously, searching for the misleading clue that led our waiter to think we were tourists. "Yes, we're locals. Why do you ask?"
He chuckled while passing us two of the restaurant's heavy, black, faux-leather menus. "You're about 20 to 30 years younger than our regular crowd."
So maybe he was exaggerating in order to flatter us, but except for a runway of college students heading up the stairs for a 21st-birthday party in one of the dining rooms, the weekend dinner crowd definitely resembled characters straight off the set of a Crestor commercial. There was no après-beach crowd in tube tops, no flip-flopped tourists looking for cheap drink specials.
The setting was not exactly exciting — mellow lighting, wooden blinds, beige walls, large-scale paintings of the Italian Riviera. Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It" emerging from the speakers. During the weekend, there's a piano player.
But one person's "boring" is another's "lovely and well-appointed," and I appreciated the extravagant tropical flower arrangements, with peaks of red ginger flowers and anthuriums, that lined the entrance. White-linen tablecloths adorned every immaculate table. And when the wait staff was quick to refold my black napkin on each instance that I left my leather seat, I felt well taken care of.
With service so attentive, I began to think this place wouldn't need any gimmicks, but when we opened the heavy dinner menus, a steady stream of cyan LED light emerged from their pages, a shade of vibrant blue kissing each diner's face. This little technological surprise felt cheesy, but neighboring diners consistently giggled with surprise while opening the menu's pages.
Menu items were American and Italian classics — buffalo mozzarella salad, caesar salad, pasta alla Bolognese, shrimp scampi, surf and turf, and apple pie. The wine list was impressive — more than 300 bottles. Prices were not out of reach, but they swung high, with almost every dish, including appetizers, in the double digits and entrées pushing $40.
Tender, sweet, homemade dinner rolls from the breadbasket were so hot and fresh that steam came out and I almost burned my fingers tearing one apart. A pear salad with mixed greens, blue cheese, and candied walnuts ($10) could easily be shared as an appetizer between two diners. An order of the homemade meatball appetizer ($12) translated to three tender balls doused in a hearty pomodoro, topped with a thick scoop of ricotta cheese.
A member of the wait staff mistakenly served us an order of the buffalo mozzarella appetizer ($12). After an apology, we were told to enjoy the complimentary insalata caprese, a delicate salad with roasted red peppers and a modest portion of mixed greens. The plate was the dullest of our meal; it lacked olive oil and had a side of unadorned mixed greens. We took one bite, set it aside, and eagerly awaited the Maryland crab cake ($14).
The anticipated single cake arrived atop a roasted corn and pepper relish. A dabble of cilantro tartar sauce was smudged on the plate as well but tasted rather flavorless. Though the three-inch crab cake was delectable, there could have been more crab. Some bites were delightful, packed with protein. Others gave us mouthfuls of filler and breading.
Pastas feature mostly meat or seafood. We enjoyed the rigatoni alla Bolognese ($22), a rich mixture of veal, pork, and beef, simmered low and slow with tomato and cream. Wilted leaves of fresh basil streamed through the dish, adding bursts of fragrance to the very best bites. Mezzalunas of goat cheese ravioli ($25) were stuffed with the tangy cheese and chewy sun-dried tomatoes. Dressed in butter basil sauce, the lovely ravioli swam amid a lush foliage of herbs an roasted tomatoes. But the stuffed pasta is not made in-house, and the pancetta in the sauce was not rendered sufficiently. Both servings of pasta were big enough for two and arrived with a ridiculous sprinkling of minced parsley. The kitchen seemed as enthusiastic about this garnish as the wait staff was at offering freshly cracked pepper and Parmesan cheese.
Our waiter strongly recommended the delectable, pan-roasted, yellowtail snapper ($36), a flaky fillet topped with a rich buttered wine sauce, lump crab, capers, and chopped tomatoes. Because the fillet was accompanied by smooth mashed potatoes and three sole spears of sautéed asparagus, it became evident that the bistro is big on the protein/starch/vegetable trio. The six-ounce petite filet ($32) could rationally be considered petite only if we hadn't touched any appetizers. The steak was classically prepared, with mashed potatoes and a side of julienned zucchini, carrots, and haricot verts. Diners have a choice of three sauces for an additional cost of $3: béarnaise, brandy peppercorn, and roast garlic bordelaise.
A pause between courses gave me time to think about how Bistro Mezzaluna fits into the current dining scene. Executive chef Brian Rutherford has been leading the cuisine for more than ten years, and while the restaurant may not be breaking new frontiers of excitement or trendiness, it certainly is consistent. He may not be the coolest kid on the block, but that's OK; many a restaurateur these days would gladly trade an entire internet full of buzz for a steady stream of paying diners. Although only Mezzaluna's owners, bankers, and landlord yet know whether the move to new digs was a wise one financially, it seemed to me that Mezzaluna is at the point where it has nothing left to prove. It's not the Carly Rae Jepsen of restaurants; it's the Paul McCartney.
My thoughts were interrupted when our waiter set the Bistro's apple crumble pie ($10) at our table."It's good for you. It has fruit in it," he joked. The menu states that the slice of pie is enough to share; geez, it could have added that warning with every dish. The scrumptious, six-inch-tall apple pie was filled with Granny Smith apples, topped with a slightly crunchy crumble, and served with a large scoop of Gelato Fino vanilla ice cream. The moist, flourless chocolate cake ($8) was also wonderful, with a tart wild berry sauce and lightly sweetened whipped cream.
As we finished our meal, I noticed two women sliding away from their booth at the opposite end of the dining room. "I'm so full," one said with a piercing sigh and a pleased smile. Her friend nodded, and they both exited with two large carry-out bags full of leftovers.
A few minutes later, we also left the big bistro with two hefty carry-out bags. Two days later, I opened my refrigerator and realized that the food from the bistro was still there, completely untouched. It had been delicious the first time around, amid the classic setting of kind waiters, soft music, dim lighting, and muffled chuckles of a regular crowd. Without that, all I had was a cold chunk of rigatoni alla Bolognese, enough minced parsley to open a parsley store, and plenty of time to wonder: Did I really pay $22 for pasta?