In and out of love at Smyrna’s Mezza Luna

My first night at Mezza Luna, I fell a little bit in love.

I’d found an open seat at the bar. Over in the corner, an accordion player filled the air with a charming tune. The open kitchen had a line of gas burners turned up so high that it might as well have been a roaring fireplace. And, when I ordered a glass of Montepulciano, the pour was so generous I thought I might have stumbled into someone’s Italian home, not a joint on an unremarkable corner in suburban Atlanta.

Everyone, staff included, seems to be as comfortable here as they might be at home. When there’s a slow moment, Tony Strangolagalli, who runs the front of the house, likes to chat in Italian with the chef, Luigi Tartaglione, and sip espresso. They own the place together. Everybody speaks a little Italian: buonasera, buon appetito, il vino buono? It’s a charming routine that puts everyone at ease. Nothing happens in a hurry. People tend to linger, laughing and drinking and eating plate after plate. Tony and Luigi seem to love it.

When the mussels alla tarantina arrived, I understood why a few people have told me they love this place, too. It was a simple, homey dish of mussels doused in a buttery white wine sauce flecked with hunks of cherry tomato and a mellow garlic finish. With the fire in my eyes and the accordion in my ears, I could’ve drunk it right out of the bowl. Like I said, I fell a little bit in love.

But there was a plot twist. When the homemade gnocchi arrived in a half-gallon of thick, pink vodka sauce, I fell promptly out of love. What was this big, goopy plate of gummy dough balls and chewy pancetta hunks trying to do? Kill me?

The veal saltimbocca that arrived later — three medallions of tender meat wrapped in sage leaves and prosciutto — had a potent, satisfying kick of sage, but drowned in a sauce that resembled and tasted like a pool of oil.

My relationship with Mezza Luna has been like that ever since. In love and out of love, charmed and confused. What a roller coaster. I haven’t been this perplexed since the last time I watched a Fellini film.

Stepping into Mezza Luna is maybe a little like stepping into an Italian home. For a critic, it is like stepping into a time before restaurant trends. Inside Mezza Luna, farm-to-table never happened. Small plates never happened. Nouvelle cuisine never happened. The simple idea of avoiding oversaucing or overcooking or overserving never occurred to anyone.

You would think this place had been around for 50 years, but, no, it is just a few years old. Rarely have I come across a newish restaurant so unreformed by the outside world.

I kind of hope they don’t change a thing.

I’m so tired of going to restaurants that know how to fine-tune a plate for Instagram but don’t have a clue about how to make a guest comfortable. This is not a problem at Mezza Luna, where the food is so homely, it is never in danger of you wanting to photograph it. The standard presentation technique appears to be “dump it out on the plate.”

It is exactly the attitude of that presentation, the way that pasta arrives here in unfussy piles and mounds that no one makes any effort to gussy up, that explains the charm of this place. Mezza Luna is not trying to fool anyone, not trying to dress up what it is. It’s an Italian comfort food restaurant (and not some kind of ironically refined comfort food, either).

They serve enormous portions of rich food: eggplant parmesan over spaghetti and red sauce, fettucine alfredo clinging with cream and hunks of chicken breast, earthy mushroom risotto cooked into a thick pile. The fettuccine alla pescatora comes with a cornucopia of little neck clams and squid and mussels and shrimp.

I sat at dinner one night with a few folks who passed these plates around greedily, stealing creamy alfredo from one another, passing eggplant parmesan back and forth.

I considered mentioning that Marcella Hazan really wouldn’t approve of the way the risotto clumped up on the plate, or the way that the shellfish, like every other protein I was served at Mezza Luna (aside from those mussels), was a touch overcooked. When a plate of caprese salad arrived, the mozzarella sitting atop pale-pink unripe discs of tomato, it was clear that better ingredients could be sourced at your local grocery.

I didn’t say any of that, because the honest enjoyment coming from the rest of the table made me feel like the villain from “Ratatouille.” Instead, I found myself several times thinking, “This is not good, definitely not any good at all.”

And then I’d keep eating and drinking and enjoying myself all the same.

As a critic, I’m honestly at a loss for what to say. I try to evaluate places on their own terms — is this restaurant achieving what it sets out to do? I think Mezza Luna is. I think they’re cooking exactly how they want to cook.

The crowds here bear it out: Sometimes, there’s nothing more satisfying than a big, ugly plate of pasta and a glug of red wine.

But this achievement is entirely out of step with the ambitions of almost every restaurant and standard of cooking that I tend to compare and evaluate with. Instead of stars, I’d rather give Mezza Luna two accordions or two flaming pans. Maybe “two fiascos of chianti” would be most appropriate.

But, as a guy who understands that comfort sometimes trumps everything else, I say, send over another bowl of mussels. Grazie, grazie.

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