The food matters a lot. But if it were all that mattered, the place would be jammed night after night -- and it isn't, perhaps because the waitstaff, while friendly and attentive, are prone to make little mistakes that are just big enough to become, in the aggregate, irritating. It's a case of molehills growing, glitch by glitch, into mountains.
We arrived fairly ear-ly one chilly winter's evening and were promptly shown to a window table. This was an obvious, if inoffensive, exercise in trophy display, and it had a legitimate business purpose; hungry passers-by will pay attention to a restaurant that already has people in it (They're eating, they look happy, let's try it) while hurrying past a place that seems empty, as if it's a stillborn party.
But despite Bella Luna's profusion of potted plants and trees -- a veritable and lush hothouse forest -- it was chilly out there in the window. I sought comfort in the day's soup ($4.50), which our waiter assured me was minestrone but, when it arrived, seemed to be lentil, with a few stray bits of carrot bobbing about. I asked him what sort of soup it was, and he said, with an Alice in Wonderland politeness, "Lentil."
My friend and I agreed to split one of the day's special main courses, ravioli porcini ($11.50), as a first dish. A very long wait resulted.
Meantime, we nibbled at the excellent, fresh, sweet bread, which we dipped into garlic-olive oil from the bottle on the table. Plainly the kitchen was not set up to turn out main courses quickly, even if they were ordered as starters; but the wait, while considerable (and chilly), was worth it. Big, soft pasta pillows stuffed with spinach swam in a cream sauce strongly infused with mushroom essence.
The veal sorrentina ($12.50) was a real yeoman's meal -- several scallops of veal topped with prosciutto and melted mozzarella cheese in a slightly tart white-wine sauce. In Italy that would have been the whole plate, but here the meat was accompanied by a saute of julienned carrots and zucchini -- a color combination straight out of The Official Preppy Handbook -- and a substantial pile of penne in a fragrant tomato sauce.
The cioppino ($15.95) looked like a bowl of flotsam dredged up after a shipwreck: crab legs, shrimp, mussels, and clams on a bed of linguine. And it was of intimidating proportions, though it needed salt. Still, we came away with the impression that cioppino isn't quite Bella Luna's thing; the kitchen is authentically Italian, while cioppino, despite its Old Country roots, is definitely a local article.
Initial impression: good, satisfying food (including, for dessert, a dense almond torte [$4.95]), but slow, imprecise service, and too many shivers in the window. We returned determined to avoid the last, at least, on an evening that was colder still.
Our well-mannered and friendly server made sure we were amply supplied with bread and water, but when he took our order he simply memorized it rather than writing it down -- and he memorized it badly. He had to return to the table to confirm we'd ordered one item, and he entirely forgot to bring another: soup (lentil, of course, on a night when we really needed it).
But, again, the food that did arrive was outstanding. The carpaccio di manzo ($6.95) consisted of raw beef sliced to tissue-paper thinness and dressed with lemon juice, capers, and grated Parmesan cheese. It was a simple, classic preparation of the sort that will never wear out.
Another classic brought off with understated artfulness was the linguine vongole ($12.95). The clams (in their shells) had been arranged in a circle around a low mountain of pasta and were unusually meaty -- a nice contrast with a sauce of white wine, butter, and just a nip of garlic.
(Even some of the city's better restaurants these days offer additional Parmesan cheese from a pre-grated bowl; it's offensive to purist sensibilities, but it's unlikely that the cheese was actually grated more than an hour or two before. Bella Luna does it the old-fashioned way, with a block of cheese and a hand-held grater. The black pepper, too, is freshly ground from a huge, truncheonlike mill.)
The much-discussed rigatoni fiorentina ($11.95) -- which I ended up ordering three times, having to repeat myself first because the waiter forgot to write it down and again because there were two rigatoni dishes on the menu and he forgot to find out which I wanted -- was a true Florentine dish, and worth the bother. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, tossed with plenty of white-meat chicken, and dressed with a cream sauce flecked with bright-green spinach. It was one of those dishes whose flavor was deep and subtle -- a little bland at first bite but becoming steadily richer, until by the end I was desperate for bread to mop up the last of the sauce.
On a lavish dessert menu, it's easy to avoid tiramisu ($5), but on Bella Luna's it was that or the almond torte, which we'd already had. It is difficult for me to make a fair judgment about a dish I dislike in its very conception, but Bella Luna's tiramisu seemed decent enough.
The ladyfinger cake was soggy with espresso, especially on the bottom, but there wasn't too much liquor, and the mascarpone cream was exhilaratingly fattening. And the serving was just the right size for sharing.
The languor of the waitstaff left me thinking that they haven't recently tasted the food they serve. If they had, it's hard to believe they wouldn't be far more conscientious and enthusiastic, because good food is infectious, and the kitchen at Bella Luna has got that part down cold.
Bella Luna, at 2299 Van Ness, serves dinner Tuesdays through Sundays from 4 p.m. until 11 p.m. Call 674-4094.