This space in Seneca Square in Great Falls became famous as the place where Yannick Cam once cooked, before he departed for downtown Washington and his new restaurant, Le Paradou. The strip mall location belies the elegant space within, now called Fiore di Luna.
Entered through a glass-enclosed corridor that is flanked on one side by an impressive exhibition wine cellar and on the other by a convivial bar, Fiore di Luna then flares out from its narrow corner entrance into a graciously appointed dining room and a spacious patio beyond. The restaurant seems made for intimate assignations, birthday and anniversary celebrations, the most delicate of business negotiations. The lights are low, the crystal sparkling, the waiters are in black tie.
And despite its suburban American roots, the restaurant has a European air, as waiters chat with patrons in Italian, German and French.
Andrea Pace is the new luminary in the kitchen. A native of northern Italy, Pace has cooked in New York, at Georgetown's Cafe Milano and most recently at Il Cigno in Reston, which like Fiore di Luna is owned by businessman Tony Arbid.
The food at Fiore di Luna is the equal of some of Italy's finest restaurants. The pastas are superb, the seafood exemplary and the veal is flawless. And the wine list, with dozens of Italian selections, including superb wines from small producers in areas such as Friuli, is complementary to Pace's cuisine. More than a dozen of the wines are available by the glass.
But as a restaurant, Fiore di Luna seems to be searching for its true self. The lyrical Italian name is correctly, but abruptly, translated Moon Blossom on the marquee out front. The waiters are dressed formally, the managers work in shirt sleeves. One night, diners were presented a complimentary appetizer, a tiny dish of luscious salmon carpaccio. Another night, there was none.
The service on one visit was nearly flawless; on another there were problems with mixed-up orders, secondary wait staff with no clue who had ordered which dish, an unordered bottle of mineral water that was poured without notice and a general unease in the dining room despite attempts to compensate for the problems. (To the restaurant's credit, the cost of a much-delayed dish was taken off the bill, and two complimentary after-dinner drinks were provided.) While the restaurant is still young (it opened in February), the deficiencies tend to undercut the high quality of the food.
Pace, 37, is very accomplished, having trained with one of Italy's most highly regarded chefs, Andrea Helriegel, of the legendary Villa Mozart in Merano. He chooses the best quality ingredients and then combines them in seemingly simple dishes, which confound with layers of flavors. His presentations are lovely, artful arrangements on pristine white china that enhances rather than distracting from the preparations.
The baby arugula salad -- of tiny leaves so common in northern Italy but less available here -- is gently mounded and seems barely touched with a lemon jus dressing, but its gentle astringency is a perfect match for the peppery greens.
An appetizer of sea scallops is topped with slivers of baby artichoke, a subtle counterpoint to the richness of the seafood. But a salad that pairs lumps of warm lobster with the bright taste of melon and endive seems incomplete, lacking, perhaps, an undercurrent of citrus to marry the ingredients. Fried calamari are light and crispy, the accompanying remoulade sauce appropriately spicy, but the dish seems to cry out for a more inventive kick.
There are no shortcomings among the pasta dishes, all available as half-portions, which are more than sufficient as a starter. All of the egg pasta is made in-house and at times can be ethereal, such as the silken squares that enclose clouds of duck and foie gras mousse. The ravioli, sauced with a shine of truffle-scented sage, is almost heavenly.
The seafood linguine is a tangle of thin strands accented with a brandy-based tomato sauce, which is light and doesn't overpower the shrimp and prawns. One night, a special pasta sampler, with tastes of three dishes, included handmade quills dressed in a gossamer pesto sauce.
Risotto dishes are more uneven. A classic Risotto Milanese was deeply infused with saffron and creamy smooth. The duck-topped risotto was heavy and cloyingly rich.
But the kitchen showed finesse with a perfectly deep-fried soft-shell crab, served as a salad special. It was crispy on the outside and juicy in the middle.
And a main course special of halibut paired the clean-tasting, white-fleshed fish with asparagus and dusky morel mushrooms. Vitello Tirolese combines medallions of veal with new red potatoes in an earthy tasting casserole that harkens back to Pace's home region of Alto Adige, which as a former part of Austria was called Sud Tyrol.
Desserts are another high point of the menu. The chocolate torte is a thin, dark chocolate shell filled with an intensely chocolate mousse interlaced with hazelnut flavor. The apple strudel is served warm, with a flaky phyllo crust encasing a mixture of Granny Smith apples, pine nuts and golden raisins, then gilded with lemon and honey ice cream. The cannolo is filled with a hazelnut cream and surrounded by a mixture of the ripest berries.
In all, Fiore di Luna is a fitting newcomer to Great Falls. Just hope that the service blossoms to match the food.
Fiore di Luna, 1025-I Seneca Rd. (near Route 7 and Georgetown Pike), Great Falls, 703-444-4060. www.fiorediluna.com. Reservations recommended. Appetizers at lunch, $6-$8; pastas at lunch, $10-$16; main courses at lunch, $18-$21. Appetizers at dinner, $7-$14; pastas at dinner, $16-$19; main courses at dinner, $22-$28. Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 5-9 p.m. Sunday. Accessible to handicapped individuals.
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