Beautiful Moon

Red Sky Café's Steve Schultz takes on Italian cuisine in a winning way at Luna Bella

It's been a rough year or so in the Tucson restaurant world. A number of local favorites large and small have had to close their doors, while only a handful of buzz-worthy new restaurants have opened up in these troubled economic times.

However, one of those new-restaurant gems is Steve Schultz's Luna Bella.

The Italian restaurant opened last October in the same shopping center as Schultz's well-regarded Red Sky Café, in the spot that formerly housed Firecracker and the debacle that was Bistro Philippe. (Speaking of troubled economic times: Red Sky's parent company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Luna Bella has separate corporate ownership and is unaffected by the bankruptcy; in any case, Schultz claims that Red Sky isn't going anywhere.) Hints of Firecracker (that old-style belt fan) and Bistro Philippe (those faux streetlamps) remain, but the look of Luna Bella is decidedly toned down, with muted colors and small, tasteful pieces of art occupying the walls; Garrett described the décor as "faded fresco." The bar area is more lively, thanks to TVs tuned to ESPN.

On our first visit, on a recent weekday evening, we were seated in a booth near the kitchen. The restaurant had a decent crowd, with the diners largely in the middle-age-and-up demographic. Our enthusiastic, fun server delivered the menus and gave us some time to check things out.

A minor warning: What shows up on the plate is not necessarily what you will expect based on the menu description. Garrett ordered the Mediterranean salad ($7), which includes spinach, feta cheese, kalamata olives, roasted peppers and cucumbers, according to the menu. Garrett asked if onions were included--he doesn't like them on salads--and was assured there were not, yet there they were on top when the salad arrived. The server apologized, fixed the problem and took the salad off the bill. The resulting salad was delicious, Garrett reported.

The description was also off concerning the pancetta-wrapped jumbo prawns ($10.50), which the menu said come with olive-basil relish and a pinot grigio lemon herb butter. On our plate, there were no apparent olives to be found, and the sauce was dominated by capers--which are not even mentioned. Nonetheless, the sauce was splendid--I loved playing in it with the complimentary sourdough bread--even if the shrimp were overwhelmed by the salty pancetta.

The other two starters--the fried artichokes ($8) and a cup of wild mushroom soup ($6)--were both fine. The small, nugget-like artichoke pieces were coated with a paprika crust and drizzled with a garlic aioli, and swam in a sauce that was strikingly similar to the caper-butter sauce that came with the shrimp. The soup was creamy, but not overly so; it could have used a bit more flavor, but I appreciated the fact that the flavor of the mushrooms was allowed to come forth.

While we enjoyed the starters, we absolutely relished our entrées. Garrett's hefty portion of shrimp linguine in white-wine cream sauce ($18)--one of the dozen or so "pasta and specialties" offerings--came with a surprisingly large number of perfectly cooked shrimp; in each bite, all of the flavors--cheese, garlic, shrimp, basil, wine, pepper, etc.--made themselves known without dominating. I stole a couple of bites, and it was one of the best white-sauce pasta dishes I've ever tasted. The fresh vegetables surrounding Garrett's dish (and mine), including carrots, green beans, broccoli and roasted red peppers, both looked and tasted fantastic.

I would have stolen a few more bites had I not been so into my own dish, the braised veal osso bucco ($24; other meat offerings include a rib eye, salmon, pork loin, chicken and an intriguing Arctic char dish). It looked great--chunks of maroon-colored meat and onions surrounded a bone in the middle--and tasted even better. The flavors of the Barolo wine, the onions and the tender, just-fatty-enough meat were a revelation. My only quibble was that the accompanying mushroom risotto was buried both literally and taste-wise; it might as well have not been there.

We were stuffed, but ordered two desserts to-go anyway: the rum banana chocolate cake ($7) and the ricotta cheesecake ($7). Instead of the cheesecake, the server brought a piece of the pistachio nut caramel tart ($7). We wound up taking all three desserts home--and I enjoyed the mistakenly delivered pistachio tart the most. It was a sweet, nutty delight. The rum banana cake was surprisingly mellow--who'd imagine that rum sponge cake with caramelized bananas in the middle, and chocolate ganache coating the whole thing, could be mellow?--and the cheesecake with ginger crust was enjoyable, if not particularly memorable.

That first visit was one of the better dining experiences I've had in quite some time. Our second visit, on a recent Friday evening, was also a nice time. (Luna Bella is open for lunch six days a week; the menu is similar, although the offerings include more salads and a few sandwiches.) We encountered more menu confusion with the fried three-cheese ravioli appetizer ($8); the ravioli didn't seem fried at all, nor did they seem all that cheesy, although they were redeemed by the peppery marinara sauce. Our other appetizer, the cornmeal-crusted calamari ($9), led to a difference of opinion: I liked the cornmeal batter, while Garrett didn't. (I appreciated the subtle corn flavor; he thought the cornmeal flaked off too easily.) However, we agreed that the calamari itself was a bit too rubbery, while the marinara dipping sauce was tangy, garlicky and delicious.

My grilled New York strip ($22) entrée was familiar--it came with a Barolo wine sauce and mushroom risotto, just like the veal osso bucco--yet enjoyable, because the meat was flawless and perfectly cooked. Garrett also liked his chicken parmesan ($14), with mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, herbs and marinara, even if it was a bit dry. The mediocre, dry rigatoni pasta on the side went largely uneaten.

Minor complaints aside, we thoroughly enjoyed Luna Bella, and were heartened to see the restaurant busy on both visits (especially on Friday, when almost every table was occupied). Steve Schultz deserves credit for not only forging ahead with a new restaurant during a recession, but for creating one of Tucson's best new restaurants in recent years.