|With menu items that include a veggie burger (left) made with black beans and portobello mushrooms, and vegan pizzas, Bella Luna is a good venue for non-meat eaters. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)|
Bowling’s gone, good times aren’t
Relocated Bella Luna is a pizza place that works when it keeps things simple
Pizza and bowling: a simple formula for fun. But as Bella Luna and Milky Way Lounge & Lanes proved over 15 years, the combination can be part of something more complex. The restaurant/candlepin bowling alley/nightclub opened in Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square in 1993. It was among a wave of new businesses that helped transform the neighborhood from sketchy to spiffy. Now the area is described in real estate ads as “hip Hyde Square.’’
There’s only one problem. In the process, pizza and bowling were priced out. After a reported rent hike of 85 percent, in late April the co-owners moved Bella Luna and the Milky Way Lounge to the Brewery, a complex of small businesses that is owned by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation. They couldn’t bring the lanes, but they did import the pizza ovens from the original location.
Hyde Square’s loss is the Brookside neighborhood’s gain. The new space is satisfyingly groovy, with dark red walls and exposed brick, a sparkly red bar, star-shaped lanterns dangling over booths, and those plastic plates featuring kids’ drawings that had their heyday in the late ’70s. It’s dark and often crowded, and off to the side there’s a room with a DJ. If no one’s dancing, well, it’s early yet.
Chef Jacob Zachow’s food has its satisfying moments as well. Mainly, you come to Bella Luna for pizza, and that’s very well done. Except when it’s not - ask them to leave it in till the bottom’s crisp. Pies are available in 8-, 12-, and 16-inch rounds, with a myriad of possible toppings. These can be as simple as the Simple Simon (sauce and mozzarella, straight up) or as complicated as the Latin Quarter (chicken, avocado, cheddar, bacon, and jalapenos) or the Grand Slam (caramelized onions, mashed potatoes, cheddar, bacon, and sour cream). You can also concoct your own.
Good choices include Pizza Bianco - a thin-crust pie brushed with olive oil and garlic and topped with broccoli rabe, ricotta, and mozzarella - and Pizza Menino, which is not for vegetarians but is for people who like vegetables. It includes pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, peppers, and sweet, mild onions.
But Bella Luna is a good place for non-meat eaters in general. There are vegan pizza options topped with soy cheese, tofu, or tempe. And there is a good veggie burger made with black beans and portobello mushrooms, served on a brioche roll. The two meaty ingredients make for a patty that mimics the experience of eating a beef burger reasonably well. Though the menu says cilantro, sweet chilies, and cumin aioli are in the mix, these flavors are barely discernable.
It’s a much more successful sandwich than the pulled pork. This is doused in too-sweet honey barbecue sauce and comes on thick, unyielding ciabatta when you want a smushy, unfancy roll to soak up the sauce.
Barbecue sauce also appears on BBQ cheese fries, along with cheddar, jalapenos, scallions, and sour cream. This is bar food, a satisfying sop for alcohol and the day’s stress. It does its job but would be better with a lot more jalapenos. Buffalo “wings of desire’’ fill a similar niche, and though they’re dry rather than saucy, they are genuinely spicy; the runny blue cheese dressing they come with is all wrong. It should be thicker, with a stronger blue cheese flavor.
For those looking for something lighter, Bella Luna has a good selection of salads. The Silver Moon includes greens, cranberries, gorgonzola, and croutons, a classic combination. The grilled shrimp and arugula salad sounds enticing, but the kitchen was out of shrimp when we tried to order it. You can add grilled chicken, shrimp (when they have it), or steak to any salad for a surcharge. Bella Luna is the kind of place you might come regularly if you lived nearby, and salads like these are sometimes all you want for a simple weeknight dinner. Also key for neighborhood residents who would rather eat in: The restaurant delivers.
Except when it doesn’t - slightly more complicated entrees can be poorly executed. Spaghetti comes with a nicely flavored tomato sauce but meatballs that are distinctly Boyardee-esque. Chicken marsala tastes good, but the pasta is overcooked (if in a sort of comforting way) and a soggy flour coating makes the chicken cutlets somewhat slimy. Ricotta gnocchi comes with appealing ingredients - tomatoes, broccolini, sweet Italian sausage, and white wine and lemon garlic butter - but the pasta itself is atrocious. The gnocchi appear to come out of a vacuum pack, and they are so hard and chewy you can barely bite into them.
Dessert, too, can be a letdown. The best among them is a serving of tiramisu the length of a forearm; it lacks chocolate but is nice and light.
There’s a good beer selection, including Sun Ray Ale, a wheat beer brewed for Bella Luna by Sam Adams; Allagash White; Dogfish Head Midas Touch; He’Brew Genesis; and PBR. It’s the perfect list for the ironic urban hipster beer lover, and for his dad, too. Wine is drinkable and reasonable - you’ve got your gruner and your albarino, your Rioja and your malbec - everything available by the glass, carafe, or bottle. The most expensive bottle is $35. Some of the cocktails are a pleasant surprise: The Hot Agave, tequila, lime, and ginger simple syrup, is particularly good. (Ginger appears in many of the drinks.) Service is up and down, friendly but not always attentive. One night our waitress disappears, only to turn up right after the kitchen closes, too late for us to order dessert.
When I mentioned Bella Luna to a coworker who lives nearby, he said, “It’s a great place to go with kids.’’ When I mentioned Bella Luna to a 20-something of the ironic urban hipster beer-lover variety, she said, “I love that place!’’ Part of Bella Luna’s appeal - and JP’s, too - is that it draws all kinds of people. That and the pizza. As for the bowling, guests may be able to do it again soon. Bella Luna just bought a Wii.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.