When you walk into Mezza Luna Restaurant in Buzzards Bay, you encounter a wall of snapshots and handwritten notes — crowded together and sometimes overlapping —showing families marking occasions from christenings to weddings to bereavements.
Owner E. J. Cubellis II (Emilio John, but few know that because he has always been E.J.) took over the business in 1993 at age 21 from his father, E.J. Cubellis, also an Emilio but called Johnny. Johnny took over the business from his mother, Speranza Cubellis, who started Mezza Luna in 1937 out of the family home.
The generations of family owners and the wall of patrons’ photos, as well as the hearty greetings of “E.J., how are you E.J.?” when he walks through Mezza Luna’s five dining spaces all speak to why Cubellis, 48, reopened the restaurant after taking a four-month break from March 29 to July 27, 2020.
“After 83 years, I couldn’t close this place. My father and my grandmother worked too hard. And I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter studying culinary arts at the tech school who wants to work here. How could I throw all that away?”
Cubellis closed early in the pandemic, partly because during the first week of state-ordered takeout only, Cubellis says, Mezza Luna took in $10,000 worth of orders and paid $8,000 in salaries and costs for the plastic takeout containers.
“I’m not a takeout restaurant. I’m a white-linen tablecloth place. It seemed like every day, I was trying to rewrite my business plan,” Cubellis says. “My kitchen still takes a village to run. It’s not like two people can come in and run this 3,000-square-foot kitchen.”
“This is my pride and joy,” he says, stepping into the stainless-steel kitchen with a half-dozen stations for different tasks. On a Monday afternoon, the kitchen is quiet except for the heavenly smell wafting from the 10 loaves of Italian bread baked each day.
Early in the pandemic, Cubellis and his staff — many longtime employees who worked with his father — started looking for ways to meet state regulations and to streamline operations.
Brothers Jeremy and Derek Griffith, manning the kitchen for 28 years and now executive chefs, went over the menu with an eye toward cutting back. But, Cubellis says, there is a purchasing plan that fits with the menu; each item bought is used in several dishes so it doesn’t make sense to cut any one dish. And customers complain, he says, if they can’t get a dish they’ve ordered before.
So, the chefs and Cubellis decided to keep everything but limit specials that required special purchasing. Changing the menu also costs money, he points out, because it means paying someone to update the restaurant’s website and social media.
So diners will find the original 50 entrees, plus four soups, six salads and dessert. There is a section on pasta specialties — including homemade lasagna ($20), eggplant parmigiana ($20), homemade ravioli in cheese or spinach ($19) and several types of fettuccini alfredo and fruite de mare ($35) with fresh scallops, haddock, shrimp, calamari, littlenecks and mussels. There are also sections for chicken, beef, pork and fish.
“The chefs make everything exactly like my father did, which is exactly the point,” Cubellis says.
That means eating at Mezza Luna feels pretty much as normal, except only 60 of the 240 seats are occupied at any one time. There are 20 additional seats on the patio but there are no heaters so that space is not being used in winter. Cubellis says he plans to reopen the patio in warmer weather but still will not use the parking lot for outside dining because the terrain is on a slope and there is not a lot of on-street parking.
Instead of using paper packets of salt and pepper, or envelopes of grated cheese, at tables, Cubellis invested in 500 small glass salt-and-pepper shakers and 250 cheese shakers — enough for two to three seatings per night. At the end of the night, he says, all the glassware is sanitized. Laminated menus are cleaned after each use.
Cubellis paid $14,000 to put up glass, instead of plexiglass, dividers between booths in the lounge. He also had a wall of glass panels installed to enclose the lounge from tables in the adjacent dining room. The additions match the dark wood installed when Mezza Luna was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 2007.
One of the pandemic’s few silver linings that Cubellis has seen is a big increase in takeout, from 5 to 7% of overall business to 30 to 40%.
“When we had to switch to more takeout, I begged our guys to not forget anything — don’t forget the cheese, don’t forget the bread,” he says, noting only one or two orders were missing something.
Next month, Cubellis says, there are plans to offer family meals at $99 that feed four to six people with soup or salad, bread and one of several entrees, including Mezza Luna’s most popular: chicken parmesan. The family meal would be $120 to $150 if ordered a la carte.
“Italian food carries well and reheats well,” he says, and he has grown more comfortable with the takeout option as customers chose it more often.
Cubellis says some people are nervous about eating in a restaurant, even though Mezza Luna is expansive and diners have several open spaces from which to choose.
The cutback in dining-in has meant servers have lost — and continue to lose — some hours and tips, Cubellis says. But between unemployment with last spring’s individual federal bonus of $600, and $300,000 in federal payroll protection money received by Mezza Luna, he says, the staff was paid during the four-month shutdown.
Now, almost all 50 are back, except for two or three longtime employees who were not comfortable working at all during COVID-19. “They will have their jobs when they are comfortable coming back,” Cubellis says.
“Our staff begged me to keep the place open and that’s what I plan to do.”
Mezza Luna Restaurant
253 Main St., Buzzards Bay
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays