NOTTE LUNA -- 809 15th St. NW. 202-408-9500. Open: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday (through March). All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $5.95 to $8.95, entrees $8.25 to $16.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $40 per person.
CROSS THE RIVER CLUB WITH Paolo's and you've got Notte Luna. This new entry in the downtown renaissance has the energetic style of Paolo's and the time-shared expertise of chef Jeff Tunks, who spends his days and early evenings at Notte Luna while he also runs the River Club kitchen.
Like Paolo's, Notte Luna has an open kitchen, with a wood-burning oven glowing its welcome to thin-crusted pizzas. The kitchen is a stage, with the cooks performing for the dining room as they drain pastas, stir sauces, garnish salads. The set is decorated with rust, blue and white tiles, and above the scene is a fresco of swags of painted fabrics and flower baskets to frame the culinary theater.
The columned dining room is equally dramatic, with neon arches against a high black ceiling, and small blue lights splashing rays of shadow against the columns. European-style woven-plastic cafe chairs are pulled up to glossy black tables; the neon turns the silverware a glowing red. Even the restrooms are part of the show, with Italian lessons on tape to entertain you.
Along the sides of the dining room are booths with handsome tables of bare wood, but the banquettes are surprisingly uncomfortable. The menus are also awkward -- far too large to accommodate the tables. Yet their listings are not particularly extensive.
The menu is a mix of Paolo's informality (pizzas, pastas and salads) and the River Club's ambitiousness -- occasional specials of garlicky portobello mushrooms with white truffle oil, stuffed quail with pears and pistachios, grouper in a crust of thinly sliced potatoes. And like Paolo's, Notte Luna offers a plate of crunchy bread with a spread when you are seated, but this one is more elaborate: herbed goat cheese and melba toasts of focaccia that has been oiled and encrusted with cheese, plus several kinds of olives marinated with herbs and hot peppers. It's not a bad idea to fill up on these, as they are one of the highlights of the meal. And the regular focaccia that accompanies the meal is damp and spongy.
Soup and salad are not typically conversation pieces, except at Notte Luna. White bean soup looks bland, but the flavor is rich while the texture is light, and julienned spicy sausage adds a kick. Daily specials might include a khaki-colored eggplant soup with deep smoky flavor, or an equally neutral-looking fennel soup with toasted pine nuts and diced fennel. Ugly is only skin deep.
The mixed wild greens raise salad to eminence. The leaves are large and small, red and green, bitter and mild, tossed with a clingy mustard-tinged, slightly creamy balsamic vinaigrette and fragrant toasted pine nuts. Those wild greens can also be ordered with roasted peppers and crunchy pancetta accompanied by a phyllo triangle filled with goat cheese. But plain is glorious enough. Cooked appetizers -- except the special mushrooms -- have been disappointing: The fried calamari was limp and flavorless, the steamed mussels muddy and their broth watery (even though the menu's promise of grappa and mustard sounded more vital). There's a carpaccio dressed to the hilt with pesto, black olive puree and romano cheese, which is just fine, and a good Caesar salad with steak tartare croutons, which the safety-conscious might call double jeopardy.
Pizzas and pastas, of course, can be shared as appetizers. The pizzas come with intriguing toppings; my favorite has gravlax, dilled mascarpone, red onions and authentic caviar. There's also duck confit or lamb sausage, plus a cute variation on the BLT, with pancetta and wilted spinach, which works but doesn't ring any bells. All these are on a faintly smoky wood-baked crust that I find too thin. It's more like a big smoked cracker than proper pizza crust.
Pastas are wildly uneven, but even the best of them are a little dry and chewy. High-quality olive oil, fresh basil and excellent grilled or smoked salmon help them along, but the tomatoes only hint at pink, and the ravioli have been near-raw.
The other entrees, fortunately, outshine the pastas. Veal paillards are pale and tender, the tricky grilling of such thin meat handled masterfully; their anchovy/ lemon/caper butter begs for bread to sop up the last bits. The veal comes with clever "french fries" made of crumbed, herbed polenta -- a new starch that could become a fad. Grilled salmon is hardly news, but it is rarely better than this char-grilled pale pink fillet, just a touch rare at the center, topped with a mustard sauce that brightens the fish without overwhelming it and served on a bed of almost crunchy beans in their own mild vinaigrette. Swordfish has suffered from being cut unevenly so that the thinner parts were overcooked, but its black olive vinaigrette and roasted vegetable accompaniments suggest it's worth a little indulgence while the kitchen gains experience. There's a chicken breast stuffed with pesto and rolled in a pine-nut romano crust with sun-dried tomato sauce that looks beautiful when you cut through it but tastes less intricate than it sounds. In the big-meat category is a huge and handsome lamb shank with lemon and garlic, as well as beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms and gorgonzola. Entree specials tend to be more complicated -- and more reminiscent of the River Club. Potato-crusted grouper comes with red pepper sauce and -- who could imagine? -- strands of zucchini skin that taste like a wonderful new vegetable. Quail is teamed with a red port and black pepper sauce. But while these have been interesting dishes, they are not memorable. Maybe the environment doesn't support subtlety. Have you ever tried to listen to chamber music in a shopping mall?
Desserts are this show's equivalent of the musical extravaganza. Cannoli are piped with their filling at the table, and, while the filling tastes like nothing more than pureed ricotta, it comes to life with the pool of strawberry puree and pistachios (a theme in this kitchen) and the crunchy but too-thick shells. Berries and cookies are a full-costume number of three kinds of berries piled into a huge thin cookie cup set on a painted sauce of lemon cream. That lemon cream is sensational. Other desserts look dressed for a party but taste merely good.
There is some secret to Notte Luna's immediate success besides the food. The service helps: It's endearing even when it is not efficient. The prices are middling, with bargains as well as extravagances in both food and wines. The location is fortunate, for this area of downtown is lightly populated by restaurants. In all, Notte Luna is like a Broadway hit:Nobody can tell you exactly how or why it works, but it does.