RESTAURANT REVIEW : Mezzaluna: High Concept in Beverly Hills

Talk about high concept. Of course, you have to know that, in Italian, mezzaluna means half-moon and also a sort of two-handled crescent-shaped chopper, but then it's clear why the walls at Mezzaluna are covered with clever paintings of crescent moons in all sorts of whimsical situations. And that image on all the dishware--is it a crescent with a face at either end or a chopper with hands grasping it? I see it, I see the concept!

Somehow it comes as no surprise when this stylish Beverly Hills place invites you to visit "our locations in New York and Aspen." While you're planning your flight, you could spend a couple of hours here at the antique wooden bar and check out the great-looking pizza oven, which is faced with tiles that look like a scowling face with the oven opening for a mouth.

Or you could try the food. Come to think of it, that might be a good idea before you actually reserve a flight.

Mezzaluna basically serves the sort of high-style Italian dishes you'd find in other Westside Italian places. Really wonderful goose prosciutto , for instance; like a sort of corned beef made from goose, sliced paper-thin and served with shaved Parmesan and some subtle truffle-flavored olive oil.

True, the menu refers to it as carpaccio rather than prosciutto , but that's probably because the most distinctive thing about this menu is that it lists eight versions of carpaccio , to say nothing of a carpaccio of the day. Some sound slightly awful, like the one with avocado on it, but in any case the idea of paying $12 for a couple of ounces of paper-thin raw beef dribbled with, say, extremely mild parsley and anchovy sauce is absurd when you can get that wonderful goose carpaccio for the same price.

For even less you can get speck con pere , which is very smoky prosciutto with pears; it's kind of like eating prosciutto down-wind of a campfire. There is a very nice salad of grilled scallops with frisee lettuce, a simple but savory version of veal in tuna-flavored mayonnaise, and very decent grilled vegetables. These appetizers are all very good, though I've had one of shrimp with white beans that were not al dente but definitely underdone.

The pastas include some real treats such as broad noodles with very rich-flavored wild mushrooms. Minigonne integrali --large tubular pasta, sort of like whole wheat ziti--are surprisingly tasty in their sauce of red olives, tomatoes and capers. The peculiarly named linguine sciue sciue are very good too: a heap of black linguine in a peppery tomato sauce.

But not all the pastas are so exciting. One night the pasticcio of the day (call it the lasagna of the day; the waiters do), pleasingly layered with artichokes and smoked mozzarella, was somewhat mushy and had a disturbing note of mint. The rigatoni with old-fashioned meat sauce may be somebody's comfort food, a watery tomato sauce with meat and cheese in it, but it isn't mine.

And the short list of meat entrees reinforces the stereotype that Italian restaurants only care about appetizers and starches. The grilled Cornish hen is unexceptional, and the seafood dishes I've had were disappointing. The swordfish with eggplant puree was mushy and overdone; the swordfish in the seafood grill was better, but it shared the plate with nondescript shrimp and oily, overdone salmon. Both dishes came with the bitterest baby squashes I've ever had.

The thin-crust pizzas from the grimacing pizza oven save the place. Pizza selvatica is lively with pesto, tomatoes and whole toasted pine nuts. Topped with onions, pecorino cheese and a hint of tomato, pizza Pugliese is like a streamlined version of a French tarte a l'oignon ; it would be a great side dish with roast meat.

At dessert time, Mezzaluna makes a tiramisu with some character, mascarpone-filled and sprinkled with really a lot of cocoa, and it has a chocolate mousse tart ( torta di gianduia ) with a strong chocolate flavor and a mild hazelnut sauce. At least one of the desserts is downright misleadingly named, though. The bavarese di melone is a vanilla Bavarian cream with some pureed cantaloupe as a sauce, which shares the dish with raspberry and kiwi sauces. And I'm convinced that when I ordered grapefruit and vodka ice what I got was pear ice.

A good pear ice, though, not rock-hard or over-sweetened. A good concept, though not as high as some of the concepts around this place.

Mezzaluna, 9428 Brighton Way, Beverly Hills, (213) 275-6703. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, dinner 5:30-11 p.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $48-$77.

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