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Eureka! In Hot Springs

Spa City's Luna Bella a thrilling find.

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A CLASSIC, ELEVATED: Luna Bella's penna all vodka comes with chunks of blue crab on top.
  • A CLASSIC, ELEVATED: Luna Bella's penna all vodka comes with chunks of blue crab on top.

It's a particularly good feeling to discover something outstanding just by chance. Maybe it's a band before it broke to huge success, or a writer whose novels you adored before she suddenly made The New York Times bestseller list. It really doesn't matter whether they were known to others or not — they weren't known to you, and you found them, and that fact is delicious.

Such is the case with Luna Bella in Hot Springs. This small Italian eatery is so fantastic it can't possibly be a secret to others, but it was a secret to us until a recent, quite accidental and happy discovery before we attended the city's official First Ever 15th Annual World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Luna Bella is located in an ordinary-looking building near Lake Hamilton and off state Highway 7. The dim and welcoming interior gives off the vibe of a classic Italian restaurant combined with the casual cameraderie of folks who've spent the day on the lake. Seating is limited and weekend reservations are a good idea.

Our waiter was quick, congenial and knowledgeable, and we were soon enjoying soft rosemary bread with herbed butter and cocktails as we perused the menu. Luna Bella has more than a dozen varieties of martinis available — everything from classic to chocolate to pineapple upside-down. Companion settled for the lemon-drop version ($9), made with Absolut Citron vodka, triple sec and sweet-and-sour mix: good and even a bit creamy. The wine list at Luna Bella is extensive, offering wine by the glass and by the bottle. Our glass of La Crema Pinot Noir ($12) was nice for the price and generously poured.

We started with a large Portobello mushroom filled with ricotta cheese and a marinara sauce and topped with panko. It was a good start, though it could have used more panko or another crispy ingredient. The appetizer day was saved, however, by the arrival of two outstanding salads: the endive and pear selection ($8), a delightful choice accompanied by walnuts, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette dressing; and the wilted spinach salad ($8), served warm with bacon, artichokes, red onion, Parmesan and Dijon mustard. At salads' end, we were satisfied and convinced that we'd soon come back someday just for the salads.

But then the entrees arrived.

Penna alla vodka ($19) is a fairly standard offering at Italian restaurants. Luna Bella takes it to a different level altogether. Imagine tender penne pasta in a vodka tomato cream sauce, along with pancetta, sugar snap peas and — surprise! — chunks of blue crab. My dining partner is not an especially big eater, but she had very little problem working this delicious dish well past her usual stopping point.

The raves continued unabated with our second entree, a dish that was probably the best meal this writer has had in months. Luna Bella's salmon with crab entree ($29) was a sizable, perfectly seasoned slab of pan-seared salmon topped with jumbo crabmeat and topped with an utterly fantastic Cajun cream sauce. The salmon was flaky and tender with a nice crunchy crust, and the crab was a perfect companion. The fish was served atop herb-roasted potatoes and green beans, which nicely held the flavor of the cream sauce and seasonings. This was an entree that I was sad to see come to an end.

The Luna Bella entree menu contains an impressive array of pasta, seafood and meat dishes. Those looking for traditional Italian favorites would likely enjoy veal osso buco ($28), chicken saltimbocca ($20) or Pasta Fortuna ($20). Other entrees included everything from rainbow trout amondine ($30) to rack of lamb ($29) to a grilled bone-in pork chop ($26).

For dessert the evening of our visit, Luna Bella offered a strawberry shortcake, a fudge brownie with ice cream and a caramel apple pie, but we happily settled on sharing a blackberry creme brulee ($8). The selection was light and sweet, with an extra bonus of fresh blackberries, whipped cream, a strawberry and a mint garnish. Luna Bella is not new. It's not unknown. But it was a truly happy discovery for our party. Make the drive to Hot Springs — seriously, from wherever you are — and discover this gem for yourselves. You'll be glad to have been there before those insufferable foodie friends of yours stumble upon it.

Luna Bella
104 Grand Isle Way
Hot Springs
501-520-5862 (LUNA)
lunabellahotsprings.com

Quick bite

Give Luna Bella's adventurous selection of 13 different martinis a try.

Hours

5 to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday and Tuesday.

Other info

Full bar, reservations highly recommended on Fridays and Saturdays.

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