When Caffé Luna opened five years ago, nearby City Market was having a hard time keeping tenants. Glenwood South was just beginning to catch on. Exploris, the NC. Museum of Natural Sciences and the BTI Center for the Performing Arts were still blueprints. My, how quickly things change.
To anyone who watched Caffé Luna expand from a modest 80-seat dining room to its current four rooms with nearly three times the original capacity, it's obvious that the restaurant shared in the downtown renaissance. Success, however, was more than just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Ask any of the owners whose downtown restaurants have closed. Caffé Luna owner Parker Kennedy, in contrast, can point to several reasons for his restaurant's success. Not the least of these is an Italian menu whose reasonable prices belie the refreshingly different and upscale nature of its contents. With entrée prices topping out at $15.95, you might expect little more than variations on a pasta-and-red-sauce theme. What you get is a selection that includes capellini with wild mushrooms, grilled salmon with fresh vegetables and linguini with calamari, shrimp. Clams and mussels.
Another factor in the restaurant's success is its consistency. Though the menu has evolved over the years, more than a third of its listings are the same as they were when the restaurant opened. What's more and especially impressive in the high-turnover restaurant world), they're still prepared by chef Maurizio Privilegi.
As a result, Caffe Luna' s fried calamari are still among the best in town, as delicate of flesh and crust as they ever were. Fresh mozzarella, draped with lusty slabs of roasted red pepper and drizzled with fruity olive oil, continues to be an homage to the simplicity of authentic Italian cuisine. Farfalle al salmone still delights with moist nuggets of salmon and bow tie pasta in a toothsome tomato cream sauce. And orecchiette antice, combining Italian sausage, broccoli and ear-shaped pasta in a savory broth, surprises again and again with its juxtaposition of light body and full flavor.
Of course, consistency doesn't require slavish devotion to the status quo. Many of the menu's relative newcomers are every bit as rewarding as those originals. Orecchiette Sienesi, for instance, is a felicitous combination of Italian sausage, radicchio, arugula, and pasta in a light tomato cream sauce. Though it shares a couple of key ingredients with orecchiette antica, its overall effect is very different. Depending on my mood, one these two is my favorite dish.
I wouldn't turn my nose up at another plate of rigatoni pastore, though, ridges tubes of pasta with sweet, meaty chunks of roasted eggplant and creamy globs of semimolten goat cheese in a rustically simple sauce. Nor would I refuse rigatoni with spinach and nuggets of chicken breast in a light anise-tinged cream sauce. If forced to give up the fried calamari as a starter, I wouldn't consider it a hardship to switch to bruschetta di salmone affumicato, featuring butter-soft slices of smoked salmon and chewy-crisp bruschetta topped with olive oil and diced tomato. Same goes for insalta di granchio, shredded crab meat tossed in a just-tart-enough lemon vinaigrette over mesclun.
As consistent as the kitchen's performance, it isn't perfect. Instead of the reasonable generous 12-ounce rib-eye that's supposed to star in bistecca della Luna, a lunch portion of steak about half that weight made its way onto my plate one evening recently. To worsen matters, thickness resulted in a steak that was a cooked well beyond the rare I'd ordered. I was further disappointed (and startled, given the emphasis on freshness throughout the rest of the menu) to discover that the side order of sauteed spinach wasn't fresh but frozen. In a follow-up call, Kennedy agreed that frozen spinach is out of place and promised to switch to fresh.
[ All the above have been addressed-Caffé Luna]
Another major reason for Caffe Luna's success-and another example of its evolutionary consistency is the décor. The annexed dining rooms, with their white tablecloths and dramatic arched doorways, are a shade more formal than the original room. Otherwise, though, they're a seamless extension of the airy Mediterranean mood, thanks to high ceilings, potted palms, and abundance of windows and pastel walls whose colors are evocative of a sunlit piazza. Richly colored Impressionist landscapes with a decidedly Mediterranean feel by Nicole Kennedy, Parker's wife and partner, reinforce the mood.
Parker Kennedy, a former wine rep, has compiled a list that's brief but well-chosen, with an especially good selection of Italian wines. And the wines are affordable, enhancing Caffe Luna's reputation as a rare restaurant that feels expensive but isn't. Which is why it will be celebrating its fifth anniversary the end of this month.
Parker Kennedy and Marchese Ferdinando Frescobaldi at Caffé Luna.
• Mayor Charles Meeker and the Marchese with the " Key to Raleigh"