Bella Luna has been a stalwart of the restaurant scene in Cincinnati for a while– they’re known for a few things, most notably bread pudding and short rib cannoli, both of which won awards at Taste of Cincinnati a couple of years ago. When Alfio Gulisano, the Argentine-bred Italian chef announced he’d be leaving Bella Luna– with the blessing of the owners, Harry and Gay Stephens– I was excited to see what he’d come up with.
Yes, Virginia, wmdm does leave downtown.
Often, in fact. Since it opened, I’ve been there twice: once with a girlfriend (who is a pescetarian) and once with a larger group. There’s enough variety to accommodate many dietary restrictions (my vegetarian friend had several options), and a few riffs on familiar Bella Luna favorites for those who have followed him from his prior restaurant.
The thing that impresses me the most about Alfio’s is that he takes the fact that his name is on the restaurant very seriously: he visits every single table and chats when he’s not working the line, making his own desserts, including gelati, or rolling out pasta. I wish they’d emphasize that more– I’m so used to desserts being shipped in that I (and many other customers, I’m sure) would love to know that everything is made in-house, and I can think of only a handful of local restaurants that make their own pasta. I only found these details out after my friend and I chatted with Alfio as he visited the table. We hadn’t ordered dessert, but both resolved to the next time we visited.
On that first visit, my friend and I went for two appetizers and two entrees. I went for the gluttonous-sounding gorgonzola cake, with pecans and truffle-balsamic glaze. It was just the right amount of truffle (I am so over the “too much truffle” trend– balance is key), and despite the heavy richness of gorgonzola, light and fluffy. Spread on bread (or eaten alone), it was a definite winner (and I ordered it again the second time around). She went for the carpaccio-style smoked salmon which, while delicious, the star of the dish were the fantastic beets, rich and earthy, balanced with a citrus vinaigrette. Awesome.
For entrees, despite being Italian and Argentinian, the menu skews heavily Italian. My friend is a risotto connoisseur– she’s lived around the world and is a pretty good cook in her own right. Risotto is so often done poorly in restaurants: cheated with cream, overcooked, gummy, or any number of atrocities– which is silly, because it’s easy to make well. She chose the seafood version, with shrimp, crab, and mussels. Her first bite was slightly overcooked (she is particular about her risotto, after all) but her second bite? Perfect– and her subsequent ones as well. I had a bite as well– it was creamy without being mushy, and the bite of scallop I got was perfectly cooked. The Better Half ordered this when we went together, and it was equally good.
Both meals I’ve had at Alfio’s have involved short ribs– what can I say? I’m a sucker for short ribs. What’s not to like? The first time, I decided on the short rib ravioli, which was a lighter version of the cannelloni Alfio had at View and Bella Luna. One portion yielded leftovers for lunch the next day, which were surprisingly good cold. It wasn’t nearly as heavy as I thought it might be, and the truffle was present but not overwhelming. The braised short ribs were also good, served with a thick mushroom broth on top of polenta. The polenta was a touch looser than I’d like (I like them to be a bit thicker to stand up to that broth), but the flavor was fantastic– and also good as leftovers.
The second trip, The Better Half decided on the crab wedge– a riff on a traditional wedge salad, with a spicy, crab-filled creamy dressing. If you like a wedge salad, it’s a fun take on the dish. We also got dessert this time: the house-made deconstructed Creme Brûlée. The Better Half stated, unequivocally before I ordered (and after he said “order whichever you want”) that he hates deconstructed anything. I, on the other hand had heard how delicious the butterscotch-pretzel cookie used as a base is, and had to try it. Both of us were glad we did: that cookie was crisp and the butterscotch worked really well with the vanilla cream and caramelized bananas. It was, essentially, the best of both bananas Foster and creme brûlée. I tasted several of the gelato flavors our friends got– all of them were great, and I’d definitely order those again.
In short– you know I’m a downtowner, but I will happily get in the car (or take Metro) to go to Alfio’s. Next time, I’ll try one of the Argentinian entrees (chimichurri? Yes, please.) and maybe take in the bar scene in the front of the house.