Mezzaluna still packs ‘em in

Bistro Mezzaluna was one of the hottest dining destinations in Fort Lauderdale in the early 1990s. Waits could be two hours or more as young professionals from nearby Rio Vista and Harbor Beach packed the place. So I was surprised when I called on a recent Friday night and was told “come on in” without a reservation (now accepted for four, rather than six or more).

By the time we got to the restaurant on the 17th Street Causeway, there was a half-hour wait, but for those of us who could handle a brisk South Florida night, there were empty tables on the patio. A few bites of chef Brian Rutherford’s elegant Italian dishes and popular classics were reassuring. It turns out that while scores of new restaurants have popped up (and just as quickly faded) in nearly two decades, the Italian bistro is just as good – and possibly better – than ever.

Every table at the 100-seat bistro was filled at prime time over the weekend, but we didn’t have to shout to hear our friends, even when dining inside on a Saturday night. Our charming server was attentive without hovering, knowledgeable about the menu and patient with our questions. And we never waited to have glasses filled or dishes whisked away.

The setting is attractive with honey-toned woodwork and comfy black booths. A large arch bisects the dining room and there’s a sleek, bustling bar by the entrance. Even if you’re not of a certain age, you’ll welcome the illuminated menu, which you can easily read in the romantic, dimly lit dining room.

The menu offers crowd-pleasers like Maryland crab cakes, filet mignon, free-range chicken, seafood pasta, and Rutherford offers daily specials like braised short ribs or snapper topped with crab.

We devoured a basket of warm breads, reserving a piece for a luxurious lobster bisque spiked with sherry and brandy, with big chunks of meat. Starters include two delicious, plump meatballs made of beef, pork and veal in a homey red sauce with roasted tomatoes and ricotta as well as shrimp spring rolls packed with bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, bell peppers and shrimp sautéed in a ginger-soy sauce.

The kitchen skillfully cooks fish, whether it’s sea bass, snapper or grouper, so that it’s flaky, moist and perfectly done, enhanced but not overwhelmed by a light sauce. The grouper, wrapped in prosciutto, was served in a piquant lemon sauce offset by briny capers, with fried potatoes.

Grilled salmon rises above the ordinary, nicely burnished, buttery tender and set atop a salad of fresh sliced pears with mixed greens, a generous scattering of blue cheese and candied walnuts. Roasted potatoes come on the side.

Seafood pasta is a long-popular standard here, with shrimp, scallops and Whitewater clams in a garlic-scented tomato broth with a splash of white wine. We didn’t ask about the preparation of the scallops in a pasta special and were disappointed that they weren’t seared and not worth the $37 price.

The standout was a succulent rack of lamb, well-trimmed, perfectly cooked and accompanied by buttery mashed potatoes, goat cheese-baked tomatoes and sautéed spinach.

The bistro offers an extensive wine list with a varied, international selection with by-the-glass and half-bottle choices as well as magnums including Napa Valley’s 2003 Opus One for $550. (You can check the wine list online before you head to the restaurant.)

Desserts are a delight, including a huge serving of deep-dish apple pie you’ll want to share, a sinfully good flourless chocolate cake, a terrific rendition of tiramisu and comforting bread pudding.

It’s great to get a table without a two-hour wait, but you’ll still want to make a reservation at Bistro Mezzaluna. Insiders know the restaurant is still on top of its game.


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