- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

The atmosphere and the portions stood out foremost in the mind while rolling out of Bella Luna Ristorante, which sits back in the Circle Towers Office Building on Lee Highway, near Fairfax Circle.
The service, on the other hand, has the quirkiness of a Peter Sellers movie, where minor bungles and misfires pervade the air. But finding a decent Italian restaurant grounded in the basics that can actually stand out with strong, new dishes is tricky. Bella Luna makes a game go of it.
Opened in March 1999, the casual, family-style restaurant combines Mike Kundary, who has managed restaurants at the Key Bridge Marriott and Piccolo, and Sam Sehnouni, formerly with Paper Moon in Georgetown and head chef at Positano in Bethesda.
According to Mr. Sehnouni, Bella Luna's menu is geared less toward one particular region because Italian meals are becoming less regionally defined and combine flavors from many areas.
The room itself is far more interesting than what one might assume from a faceless suburban office building. (Yep, despite the bright orange, yellow and white crescent moon logo showered with stars as its sign, Bella Luna rides at the base of yet another of Lee Highway's finest facades.)
The main room elegantly meanders into a series of smaller rooms, giving a fetching intimacy, and the soft lighting won't cause you to bump into the furniture.
The service wobbled in places. When we got to our table, a companion noticed that the wine list was placed on the table upside down. (I don't remember our walking into the restaurant on our hands.) Then he pointed out that a Mother's Day menu sat on the table, too, though that worthy celebration took place five days before.
"Boy, I'd be a mean critic, wouldn't I?" he asked with an expression of a puppy dog.
Aye, Kevin, me lad, yer doin' just fine. I selected the wine, but when the waiter brought the bottle, he poured it for my friend Kevin to taste. Was it something I said? (I admit I chose an inexpensive California chardonnay and perhaps this was our otherwise friendly waiter's way of saying, "Yeccchhh, you miserable neophyte.")
The white pizza antipasto could be mistaken for a meal. The mozzarella is laid on thick and bubbly, and the aroma of garlic highlights the good spice work everywhere: It leaves no L.A.-type cloud either on the dish or the breath. The crust, as well, was perforated and crunchy.
The antipasto Bella Luna was another excellent, ample appetizer. Swimming in a vinaigrette marinade, the dish features roasted red peppers, the big cannelini beans and onions, baby eggplant, fresh mozzarella and slices of tomato.
Smoked Norway salmon has found its way to Italian menus, but when prepared with such flavor and elaborateness as this, it's a cold, light refreshing overture to perhaps a more gastronomic following. The fresh salmon came in wide, thick pink slices, gloriously absent of any dryness.
Timing between courses is everything, but Bella Luna's was unusually long between the appetizer and the main meal. We chalked it up to sitting in a remote booth on a Friday night, but as Thomas Jefferson said, all tables are created equal. (Or something like that.)
The pasta dishes are customarily mammoth, with the lasagne alla Bolognese coming out in blocks. The Bolognese sauce is so thick it resembles chocolate icing, and the entire dish drips in mozzarella. Crisp around the edges just so, the dish was soft to the cut of the fork.
A house specialty whose taste still croons in my mouth was the gnocchi alla Bolognese. Dumplings are a particular weakness of mine, but, by virtue of their doughy texture, can be as leathery as an overdone suntan. These dumplings were small and bespoke the spud in taste but not texture. You could gulp them like oysters, but, that would be spoiling the fun of it.
Rigatone alla pollo, which mixes chicken and artichoke and a light tomato sauce, is another specialty worth noting. Melanzana alla Parmigiana keeps the breading and the grease light on the eggplant, just shaking in mozzarella and tomato sauce. Rainbow trout and orange roughy round out the menu on the pesce scale.
For dessert, cannoli Siciliana is a classic Italian standard, and Bella Luna's is as good as any: crunchy pastry stuffed with sweet whipped ricotta and tiny chocolate chips.
The tartufo was rather confusing: When it came out on the tray, the vanilla and chocolate ice cream were caked in a hard, dark chocolate shell, but brought to the table, it was minus the shell. Our waiter insisted it was the same dish. It didn't matter; by that time, we were too full to argue.

RESTAURANT: Bella Luna Ristorante, 9401 Lee Highway, Fairfax, 703/383-6968.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday and 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday
PRICES: Antipasti $1.50 to $5.95; pasta $5.50 to $10.95; chicken, veal and lamb $6.95 to $17.95; sandwiches $4.95 to $6.95; desserts $3.95 to $4.95
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards
PARKING: Ample free parking
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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