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On the second visit, with David, the focaccia was the real thing: soft and flavorful and an excellent complement to the starter du jour: slices of pillowy fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers splashed with a sexy balsamic vinaigrette. As for that night's entrées, the veal-stuffed ravioli in a rich porcini cream sauce was excellent, and David loved the cheese ravioli, which was topped with a tomato-brandy sauce and generously dappled with fresh lobster.
Mezzaluna's Web site insists that this neighborhood bistro is a little more multicultural than it actually is. "Come enjoy the flavors of eight different countries," it boasts. "Our chef will be preparing courses from countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany." The menu looks pretty straight-up Italian to me, though, unless you count a Frankenstein-like culinary creation called "Acapulco pizza" made with Canadian bacon, pineapple, mushrooms and mozzarella. The alleged cuisines from those other U.N. countries were MIA on my visits. But the Italian dishes are first-rate, so why not celebrate that?
The new Mezzaluna isn't a fancy joint — the napkins are paper, and there are no tablecloths — but it's cheery and a friend of mine who lives nearby loves the place. "Every neighborhood needs an Italian restaurant," he insists.
The historic hamlet of Parkville has had its neighborhood Italian place since the Great Depression, according to the menus at Frank's Italian Restaurant. It used to be called Papa Frank's and has moved a few times around Parkville's main drag, most recently to a prominent corner on Main Street. Until this month, it was operated by the popular and charismatic Frank McCall, who died on October 4 at age 49, apparently of a heart attack. He had already sold an interest in his restaurant to former Ameristar chef Ali Mahzoon, who continues to operate the cozy storefront dining room, using the McCall family recipes — creating the house sugo is still a three-day cooking process — and writing the day's specials on a small chalkboard.
It's a charming, unpretentious place, and it says volumes that the best-seller here is the Italian steak sandwich (smothered in that rich sugo), which I've tasted and really liked. Not everything on the menu is extraordinary, but it's all solid and comforting. I'd never order the calamari again (they look like savory little doughnuts), but the Mendolia sausage starter and the cheesy garlic toast were great, and I loved the "Lasagna rolls," a meatless spin on traditional lasagna with the seasoned ricotta rolled up in a sheath of pasta.
My friends, even the fussy ones, cut Frank's a lot of slack because the place is so intimate. It really does feel as though you're eating in someone's house — someone cooking in close proximity to your table. The pasta Diavola with shrimp, tossed in a punchy tomato cream sauce, is wonderfully spicy, and the eggplant dinner — though lacking visual appeal — is light, crispy and surprisingly greaseless.
It's classic small-town Italian-American cooking, and there's something rewarding about that. Not all the desserts are made in-house (the tiramisu, for example), but there usually are one or two homemade delicacies, such as last week's slice of pumpkin pie. It came sprinkled with enough powdered cinnamon to garnish about three full-sized pies, but there also was a fluffy cloud of real whipped cream. Maybe it wasn't very Italian, but as comfort food, it was pure la dolce vita, baby.