Location: 5060 William Penn Highway, Murrysville. 724-733-2662. www.bellalunatrattoria.com
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight; Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4.50-8; salads and sandwiches $5-12; pasta and entrees $11-20
Fare: Traditional Italian-American
Atmosphere: Casual comfort
Liquor: Full bar
To judge by a census of local restaurants, one might think that Pittsburgh had a rich and vibrant history of Italian immigration. And in certain sectors, that is, of course, true. But if popularity of cuisines is really tied to patterns of old-country origins, then where are all the Eastern European restaurants? Sure, there are a few, but let's face it: When Pittsburghers need a gathering place, somewhere for a drink, a family meal out or a rehearsal dinner, more likely than not that place will feature pizza, pasta and eggplant Parmesan.
In Murrysville, Italians and aficionados alike gather at Bella Luna Trattoria. Spanning two storefronts in a strip mall, Bella Luna offers the usual TV-lined bar plus several dining areas, including one that can be partitioned off for those rehearsal dinners. Décor is casual, with vintage-style advertising signs near the bar and Old World murals in a couple of the dining rooms. We arrived after the dinner rush, but the bar was still bustling; dueling pianos even made an appearance by evening's end.
The menu was familiar and unpretentious, with a wood-fired grill and pizza oven figuring prominently in preparations. Uninspired by the appetizers -- a standard selection of Italian-inflected pub grub -- we started with a pizza, and it immediately raised our hopes. Not only was the thin crust crackling-crisp from the oven, but the sauce was lively with herbs and spices, and the sausage and onions we ordered added sweetness and savor. We especially liked that the red onions were lightly cooked to release their sweetness, and not left raw and pungent.
Creamy tomato, the soup of the day, filled the mouth with rich tomato flavor, the cream providing texture, not heaviness. House salads were the now-familiar blend of iceberg and spring greens, a compromise we like, but not when the iceberg is as pale and chunky as it was here.
For her entrée, Angelique tried one of the specials: Tuscan ravioli, filled with rapini, sautéed with shallot and garlic, and mixed with white beans, ricotta cheese and cooked pancetta. The robust flavors of these ingredients mingled in a satisfying interplay of vegetal, herbal and roundly creamy notes, and this complexity called into question the decision to use red-pepper pasta for the ravioli themselves. Their mild flavor addition got lost in the mix, and the pasta was, unfortunately, more tough than tender. Angelique asked for more of the chunky plum tomato sauce, whose sweet astringency was a wonderful complement for the earthier flavors of the ravioli filling.
A dining companion was justly intrigued by pepperoni pasta. Blanketed with floes of melted cheese and marinara sauce as well as generous rounds of sliced pepperoni, this turned out to be not unlike a pepperoni pizza with chewy noodles in place of crispy crust. The unabashedly gooey, salty, carb-o-riffic concept worked, even if the greasiness of the meat was a bit more than we might have wished for.
Jason had never heard of chicken and shrimp Michelle, but the combination with hot peppers, sausage and tomatoes in a white wine-garlic sauce sounded promising. The chicken was tenderly poached, and the shrimp succulent. The pepper, sliced thin, varied from bland to searingly hot; the sausage, cooked and then sliced into matchsticks, added savory notes without overwhelming the mild chicken and shrimp, and the tomatoes were good enough for May. But the sauce was too thin and underseasoned to unite these disparate ingredients, and Jason was left with the sense of a near miss.
The desserts, we're pleased to say, didn't miss at all. Tiramisu was sweet and fluffy without being boozy, and Godiva chocolate cheesecake brought the cocoa hit home in a dense, creamy cake which drew our forks back and back again as if by magnetism.
And, as if by magnetism, we will surely find ourselves back in Murrysville, drawn to Bella Luna's wood-fired oven. If the pasta dishes and dinners did not especially distinguish themselves from a thousand other Italian restaurant meals we've had, the wood-fired pizza has us fired up about Bella Luna Trattoria.