Orvieto’s Trattoria La Mezza Luna doesn’t have a website, or even a Facebook page. Its hours aren’t posted on the door and the small sign out front is covered by an overgrown vine. Its underground, vaulted dining room seats about 40 people when it’s packed to the gills, which is all the time. Owner Averino isn’t particularly charming or chatty; in fact most of the time he gives the impression he’d rather be somewhere else – and that he’d rather you were somewhere else.
So why clamor for a table here? For a heaping plate of what may well be the best damn pasta in all of Italy.
Averino’s spaghetti alla carbonara deserves every etto of its mythic status: al dente noodles in a cholesterol-peaking sauce of pork cheek, parmesan cheese and black pepper, glossed with a freshly beaten egg. Once you’ve tasted it, you’ll understand why Averino has been turning away unlucky would-be diners for decades, and why people make a special trip to Orvieto just to eat here.
La Mezza Luna may not be trying hard, but its reputation has preceded it for more than 40 years. Online reviewers, writing in both Italian and English, may dis the service but they’ll never knock the carbonara:
“The best carbonara I’ve eaten in my life…”
“The carbonara calls to me from 40 years ago, when I had dinner here while in the military. And after 40 years, it is spectacular in the same way.”
“Carbonara becomes poetry in this place.”
“Carbonara from God”
“There don’t exist places in the world that make carbonara like La Mezza Luna. We come from Florence to eat it. But if you expect waiters who make a fuss over you like little puppies, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
Averino can be a tad…indifferent. His frosty exterior thaws quickly when he starts to talk about his restaurant and that famous dish. Still, it would be a stretch to say he ever approaches warm and fuzzy. Asked why people keep coming back for his carbonara? “Because it’s good.” Seems he’s not one for small talk, either.
Born and raised in Orvieto, he and his wife opened La Mezza Luna in 1976, after he’d spent two years cooking in restaurants in Rome, learning to make traditional Roman pasta dishes. One of the most typical, spaghetti carabonara – is served in restaurants high- and low-class all over Rome, but devotees swear that no one makes it like Mezza Luna.
Averino’s recipe for carbonara is a classic one, with no secret ingredients. Spaghetti, guanciale (pork cheek), beaten egg, black pepper and parmesan cheese. That’s it. The only salt is in the pasta water. The tricky part about carbonara, of course, is to add the egg at just the right moment – it needs to coat the pasta but not turn into scrambled egg. (A carbonara with bits of cooked egg in it is a failed carbonara.) And the dish still has to be served hot.
So what’s just the right moment, per Averino? “That’s the secret. It’s in the hand.” They’ve been mixing it the same way since the beginning, sourcing their ingredients from the same purveyors, and never changing the recipe. He even let me back in the small, spotlessly clean kitchen to see the carbonara being made. I watched the cook work quickly and deftly to add the ingredients, one at a time, to a steaming bowl of pasta. In my kitchen, the result would be pasta with bacon, scrambled eggs and cheese. Yet in this simple trattoria, the result was magic.
And word is out on the magic. The restaurant doesn’t start serving until 12:30 but by 11 am, every table has a riservata card perched on it. Dinner is the same – Mezza Luna books up at least a day or so in advance, and a last-minute table is virtually unheard of, even in low season. Diners are a mix of locals and tourists, as well as those Italians who come in from different parts of the country.
Prices haven’t changed in at least 10 years – at €8 per portion, Mezza Luna’s carbonara isn’t just among the best in Italy, it’s also a great deal.
Averino works the dining room, bringing heaping bowls of carbonara to patrons, half of whom are waiting to scarf theirs down before getting back to work, the other half waiting to Instagram theirs before digging in.
There are at least two dozen other items on the menu – it’s also a great place for other regional pasta dishes and grilled meats. But really, it’s all about the carbonara. It’s ridiculously good, without pretense or nuance or garnish. This is simple, honest food where you taste each ingredient and feel obligated to eat well past the point of being full, just because it’s so damn good and it would be a sin to leave any behind.
By the time we wrap up our lunch the place is full, the barrel-vaulted dining room warm and loud. Averino seems disinterested and after more than 40 years of slinging plates of pasta, maybe that’s understandable. Surely he can retire if he wants, and leave the business in the hands of his son. “I’m already retired. But this is still fun for me.” Just don’t expect him to smile when he says that.
Via Ripa Serancia, 5, Orvieto, Italy
*This article originally published January, 2018.