Mezza Luna test

The ladder of success sometimes starts at the sink. So it was for Fred Norden, whose first job in restaurants, more than 40 years ago, was also one of the most important: Dishwasher. 

Eventually, Norden was promoted to busboy, then server. Along the way, he became a maître d’…..can you guess where this is heading?

“All of my life, I have been working for other people,” said Norden, 62, sitting in the dining room of Mezza Luna in Hauppauge, before interrupting himself to call out to a  server to adjust some flowers nearby before dinner service begins. “There are two roses on every table, but only one on that table…”

Norden has honed that hyper attention to detail over decades working in Long Island restaurants —  the Viennese Coach in Syosset and Lombardi’s on the Sound in Port Jefferson — and it serves him well at Mezza Luna, where he has finally graduated to co-owner.

“It’s always been my dream to have my own place, and my dream came true at a late age,” said Norden of the restaurant he opened with partner Jake Watral in mid-October.

For 41 years, the restaurant Mario dished out classic Italian-American food here, and from 1999 to 2009, Norden was the restaurant’s maître d’. While he eventually moved on to other ventures — most recently as maitre’d at Drift 82 in Patchogue, which he helped open — but stayed in touch with owner Mario Bua. In the spring, he told Norden he was selling the place, which led Norden to partner with Watral. “The day after Father’s Day, we took over the restaurant,” he said.

They turned the place inside out, at least decor-wise.A summerlong renovation (led by designer Gina Ireland and contractor Jonathan Singer) introduced clean lines and opulent details, and the 80-seat dining room was transformed into an enveloping white-on-black experience, with mirrors, chandeliers, abstract artwork and banquettes. (They also renovated the separate bar, which still attracts a lively after-work crowd).

The new owners wisely kept on longtime Mario chef Raoul Marino to execute a menu still mostly devoted to Italian and Italian-American dishes, such as shrimp scampi, manicotti and capelli d’Angelo Mario — angel hair pasta in a crab-meat-heavy red sauce. (There’s also still tripe, for those who love the dish). But Norden has introduced other dishes absorbed during his decades spent in restaurants, such as oysters Rockefeller and seafood towers, lobster mac-and-cheese, whole grilled branzino and duck a l’Orange (Dinner appetizers start at $15; pastas at $24; and entrees fall between $28 and $48). Among the 13 desserts are cheesecake, carrot cake, strawberry flambe and crepes Suzette for two.

“I don’t want this kind of cuisine to disappear,” said Norden, who jumps up from an interview to flambée duck at one of the two stations in the middle of the dining — flames monetarily flaring — then sits back down as if nothing unusual has occurred. 

Norden’s energy level definitely does not betray his age; he’s spring loaded, constantly keeping an eye on everything happening in the dining room. Mezza Luna serves lunch through dinner seven days a week, an intense schedule — though Norden makes sure to take Sundays and Wednesdays off. He’s happy more than half of the Mario staff chose to stay on through the transition.

“My youngest daughter said, ‘I am so proud of you,’” he said. “Sometimes I still haven’t digested that I am the owner.”

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