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Tuck in Tuscan-style at La Luna

By Marisa Nadolny

Publication: The Day

Published March 28. 2013 4:00AM

Just when we all thought hibernation season was over, more snow and frigid weather settles in throughout the region. No problem: if you still crave hearty, body-warming, winter-time comfort foods, consider a trip out to La Luna in Mystic.

The Mystic restaurant is a relatively new offshoot of a longtime Branford dining institution. Over its nearly 20 years in business, La Luna has become known across the shoreline for its flavorful Italian fare and happenin’ social scene (karaoke anyone?). It’s the sort of place where, if you order pasta e fagioli and pronounce it “pasta fa-zool,” your waiter will know exactly what you mean — a comfort in itself for some city-folk.

We denizens of the region boundaried by Providence and New Haven take our Italian food as seriously as we do its cheeky American cousin, pizza. We like garlic; we like real cheese; we adore cappuccino prepared properly in lovely glassware. All of which diners may enjoy at La Luna.

The Insalata di Cesare ($6) offers a quick fix of that Mediterranean zest if you’re short on time. Thick leaves of Romaine marry very well with a pungent dressing (but not overly fishy, thank goodness) and crisp yet still soft croutons. The icing on that cake, though, are the firm, mildly salty triangles of parmesan cheese that top off the salad. It’s a delicious mix and a very generous portion.

As for that pasta e fagioli ($5), La Luna’s is a more rustic take on what can be a more soup-y, meat-heavy dish. Based in a bright orange broth, thick cuts of penne pasta and ample beans make for a thick (filling) stew with a nice garlic flavor throughout.

But if you want to tuck in for some serious Italian dinner, consider the Fettucini Bolognese. Decked in what the menu describes as “La Luna’s secret healthy meat sauce,” this dish isn’t as heavy as it might sound. The sauce is, indeed, bright and light on the palate and gloriously garlic-y. (We’re pretty sure we noticed carrots in the sauce — a wise move likely meant to add sweetness and balance.) A lunchtime portion ($10) fed two of us with a decent amount left over.

Key lime pie — served with dipping sauces and chocolate script — rounded out a recent lunchtime visit, and the Thanksgiving effect thereafter was worth it. La Luna’s key lime pie presents a great balance of sweet and tangy and, more important, it’s not florescent green like so many pretenders. Try it with the wonderful house cappuccino.

One disappointment but not a total loss was the meatball Parmesan sandwich on a hard roll ($8 on the lunch menu). The sauce, roll, and portion were very nice, but what could’ve been dynamite meatballs (laced with just the right amount of fennel) somehow ended up dried out. We revisited the meatballs during brunch — mixed in an otherwise yummy sausage and peppers dish — and again we found them to be dry. The sausage in that mix was much better than the meatballs, and the sauce throughout was fantastic with tinges of sweetness.

Now, brunch ($21.95 per person, includes choice of Mimosa, Bloody Mary, Screwdriver or OJ) at La Luna requires some pacing if you’re a fan of freshly prepared omelets and waffles, available alongside at least a dozen other dishes, plus just as many desserts. We started a recent brunch at the omelet station and tucked in happily to beautiful mounds of egg and fresh veggies, expertly prepared. They were delicious, but soon outdone by the Belgian Waffles (with a slew of toppings available). Think crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and very flavorful throughout — recommended, as is the similarly prepared French toast, available as one of several breakfast-y brunch items.

La Luna’s menu is long and varied, and if these recent tastings are reliable indicators, the Mystic restaurant will soon develop the patronage that its flagship enjoys.

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La Luna Ristorante Italiano

9 Whitehall Ave., Mystic
(860) 536-6300
http://lalunact.com

Cuisine: Tuscan-Italian inspired

Atmosphere: Casual yet elegant; see also: cloth napkins and table linens; bar area offers live music and karaoke nights weekly

Service: Courteous but with tendencies toward slow

Prices: Moderate, considering the quality and quantity. Lunchtime entrees average around $12, and dinner main dishes around $18.

Hours: Kitchen open Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. (lounge closes at 1 a.m.); Saturday 1 p.m.-10 p.m. (lounge closes at 2 a.m.); Sunday 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (Sunday brunch available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Note: Our waitress said Easter's brunch is heavily booked.)

Credit cards: All majors

Reservations: Yes

Handicapped access: Very roomy interior and entryway

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