What we like about Mezzaluna:
Itís the most beautiful Italian food in town.

For years, I've lusted over the pictures in a cookbook called The Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking. Bountiful foodstuffs grace the pages in resplendent, four-color glory, too photo-styled to be real...except for on the plates of Mezzaluna, where foods like these from all over the Italian map come to life.

Ask around, and you might conclude that Austin has a love-hate relationship with this restaurant. Crowds abound, detractors scoff, and I run across an equal number of each. "That place is so cool!" "That place is too trendy!" "I met my boyfriend at the bar!" "By the time I wade through the attitude, Iíve lost my appetite." Yeah yeah, but what about the food? Beautiful food for beautiful people?

Hey, Iíve yet to leave Mezzaluna gustatorially unsatisfied, though some friends tell me theyíve been frustrated by inconsistency. (One pal said he had lost interest in the Linguine alla Pescatore -- he said the flavor of the seafood had faded over time -- and found their Tiramisu to be lacking ... but those are the most popular menu items and whoís writing this review, anyway?)

Thing is, Mezzaluna has dishes you might find hard to stop eating, no matter how full you feel. Start with a couple of their antipasti, and see how far into your entree you get. Desserts are worth a try, but finding room for them is as big a challenge as finding a nearby parking place on a weekend night.

The crab cakes, otherwise known as Pasticcio di Granchio ($9.50), sized like country-club mini-biscuits, but their mild flavor is excellent with spicy shrimp cream. In a different direction, thereís a cheesefest going on in the Carciofini al Forno ($6.50): parmesan and asiago with artichoke hearts, perfect for smearing on the accompanying garlic crostini.

We had the same good fortune with entrees. Restraint was impossible with the saffron-flavored Linguine con Cavolviore ($11.50), tossed with skillfully caramelized cauliflower and garlic (really, itís better than it sounds!) and the Crostacei Spedini ($16.50), perfectly grilled seafood skewers atop risotto and just enough marinara to balance the flavors.

Our carne e patatas lover felt sated with her big dish of Filetto di Manzo al Ferri ($19), grilled tenderloin topped with deeply balsamic thin-sliced onions, accompanied by subtle garlic-chive mashed potatoes and gorgonzola cream. (Not very Italian, but satisfying all the same.)

The dessert menu changes; we tried a dense Chocolate Torte that pleased the chocoholics in the group. It came with raspberry sauce and very vanilla ice cream for the rest of us. And like everything else placed before us that, it was mighty pretty to look at, too.

--Betsy Thaggard