The yardstick is Square Grouper and that's what we heard before we went- It's as good as Square Grouper. Actually in some respects I think it's better.
My neighbor is the chef here which made me wonder a bit how objective I could be at the new Italian restaurant on Cudjoe and I like Brian. He and his wife are the sort of people you want for neighbors, quiet unassuming dependable and good for a laugh in passing. But what if I didn't like his cooking? Eventually the wife and I took the plunge and last Saturday went early. ate well, got home and thought, hmm...we'll have to go back.
The eggplant Tuscan stack started the evening and it was done right, crispy outside, firm inside and the green stuff was crispy and peppery. I was quite surprised by the quality of the tomato, which tasted like those things that we used to grow when we were kids. Real flavor on top of the milky mozzarella.
The restaurant only recently opened at the Mile 22 marker more or less, north of the Sheriff's substation and around the corner from the Kickin' Back convenience store. It used to be Coco's Cantina, Latin food mostly, but the addition of Thai food when the Thai lady was in to cook it at the end of the week...These days the rather spartan interior of the old greasy spoon has been deftly transformed into what you see above.
I stopped off from time to time for a fix at Coco's and I liked taking the Thai food home for my wife who has a fondness for it. But Bella Luna takes away the nostalgia. I think this new eatery is marking a step up for the neighborhood in ways that goo deeper than just having a decent restaurant available.
I got to choose our main dish after we polished off the eggplant and some of the best fried calamari I think I've ever had. There is a tendency to fry squid within an inch of their lives giving them the consistency of potato chips. At Bella Luna the calamari were cooked with flavor and moistness yet they were coated, and not overly coated, in crispy fried goodness. I really liked them. My wife indulged me on the main dish as I like beef over wide noodles, an escape from tomato sauce and I thoroughly enjoyed my stew...
We looked around as the dishes came to our neighbors in a packed dining room. We saw classic pasta. tomato and cheese dishes and I wanted one of each. The desserts were excellent, tiramisu is a classic and I tend not to order it for that reason but this one was strong and perfect and like the panna cotta, a form of Italian custard, it was not too sweet, but sweet enough. We ate too much, trying not to regret the end of the meal.
The prices seem reasonable to me especially as I think you get good value for money. The appetizers were ten dollars or less, while the main courses were under 20. We had no beer or wine but like the food menu the drinks list was comprehensive but not excessively intricate. I saw several beers and wines I'd like to try on a non-teetotal night.
The outside seating was in use as a waiting area and we talked briefly with another couple and they too brought up the apparently inevitable comparison with the Square Grouper just up the street. I like the Square Grouper but the menu hasn't changed in a decade, and the new upstairs Tapas bar, which I have yet to visit, must have absorbed a lot of creative energy from downstairs.