What everybody needs in the kitchen = a $15 tool that will save you tons of time.
The way that most American cooks reduce ingredients to small pieces—a European-style chef’s knife—is just one way. Some cultures use cleavers. Others use a mortar and pestle, molcajete, or similar tool that both grinds and collects. And some use still other instruments, like the curved, two-handled blade used in parts of Italy and Italian America: the mezzaluna.
A mezzaluna is shaped like a contact lens, like a bow without the arrow. The Italian translation of “mezzaluna” comes out to “halfmoon.” From the halfmoon’s tips project handles of two or three inches each, often plastic and easy to grip, sometimes even with finger molds. To use a mezzaluna, you wrap your fingers around these handles as you would the pole of a beach umbrella—thumb curled around to touch your fingers. The blade faces down and its curve bumps out, convex. A mezzaluna can have one, two, or three blades between its handles.
If you like to keep things light in the kitchen, you should probably invest in a mezzaluna. They’re just a lot of fun to use. Though they don’t allow for the level of precision knifework that more common chef’s knives do, not many home cooks have restaurant-level knife skills anyway. You don’t always need a perfect dice on that onion. When you opt to use a mezzaluna, you’re opting to save serious time—and have fun. On top of this, the blade serves several practical purposes.
With a mezzaluna, you can chop garlic fine. Especially if yours has more than one blade.
With a mezzaluna, you can easily make gremolata or pesto. The beauty of the curved blade is that you don’t always have to cut just one ingredient at a time. Once you master the two-handed rocking motion, you can cut your basil, garlic, and pine nuts all at once.
And sure, a pizza wheel or culinary scissors works, but you can even use a larger mezzaluna to cut pizza into slices.
The way it works is simple. You gather what you need chopped. You break out a trusty cutting board. You place your ingredients, say half an onion or a head of romaine, in the middle of the cutting board. And then, by lifting one handle up while the other is down, and then bringing the down-side up while the up-side goes down, and by repeating this motion, the rocking of the blade’s curve reduces the onion or lettuce to pieces. Use the tool longer to cut finer.
While you’re chopping, the motion is in the wrists and forearms. There’s no need to involve your legs or hips. Although I like to, much to the amusement of my grandmother, who grew up in a kitchen where the mezzaluna was a regular tool. She dices the ingredients for Roman-style artichokes with a mezzaluna (garlic, mint, breadcrumbs, cheese), reducing the mixture to a fine blend to be spread onto artichokes and then braised or baked. No, you don’t have to move your hips. But why not? The act of using a mezzaluna is about embracing the fun of being in the kitchen. Sure, a European-style chef’s knife is more efficient. And though cooking for yourself or your family calls for efficiency, spending time with family and friends in the kitchen shouldn’t be about eliminating every last efficiency from your process, making everything as streamlined as can be.
Cooking should be fun. This tool reminds you of and brings just that.
High-end, multi-handled mezzalunas can cost more than $100. There’s no need to spend that much. If you want, you can find a great-performing gadget for less than $15.
So next time you see a garlic press, or a corn corer, or some other marginally useful kitchen tool, remember the mezzaluna—it's quirky and useful. Not only is this cool-looking device steeped in cultural history, but the tool is practical. It can segment a mean pizza, pinsa, or focaccia. It can chop more than one ingredient at a time, folding multiple chopping steps into one. Most importantly, it can bring the fun back to cooking. And that alone makes it worth using.