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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Stella - Starry Opening Night

I usually try to avoid opening nights, especially at buzzed-about restaurants, it's usually too much of a mob-scene, the food and service are still shaking-out the inevitable quirks of a new operation, it's just not a great way to asses a new restaurant. but I found myself unable to resist the opening of Stella, Stephen Starr's new pizza place at 2nd and Lombard. Friends and I have long been traveling to New York City to partake in the pizza culture there, from old-school places like Patsy's in East Harlem, or Grimaldi's and DiFara's in Brooklyn, to the newer wave of Neapolitan-inspired artisan shops, like Una Pizza Napoletana (recently closed), Keste and Franny's. In fact it's been hard to keep up with all the openings and changes in NY. San Francisco also has an exciting pizza scene, as does Los Angeles. So where has Philly been during these developments?

Sure, there are some decent pizzas to be had in Philadelphia, and some of the unique local spots like Taconneli's and DeLorenzo's in Trenton lend some regional interest, but aside from Osteria, Philly had been ignoring the trend of the minimalisitic, elegant, artisan, Neo-Neapolitan pizza. Until now.

As reported extensively in the local papers, Stephen Starr's crew did extensive research before opening his pizza place, visiting many of the fabled old-school and new-school spots in New York, New Haven and beyond, even traveling to Phoenix, Arizona to experience one of the most highly-regarded restaurants in this trend, Pizzaria Bianco. I'm happy to say that, judging from our experience on opening night, even amidst the inevitable first-day bumps, the Starr crew seems to have studied well, and they've created an exciting and satisfying pizza experience at Stella.

Does it rank up with the rarified upper-eschelon of pizza places? Should New Yorkers put down their slices and travel down here for a pie? Should San Franciscans abandon A16, Delfina and Tony's Pizza Napoletana and buy a ticket for Philly? Well, maybe not, but then it's a little unfair to judge a place from one visit, and on their first night. Despite that hedging, we thought the pizza was very good, and we're thrilled that a place has opened in Philly that is seriously pursuing this type of thin-crusted pizza, made in the Neapolitan style, with high-quality ingredients and attention to detail. They may not be striving for the obsessive artisan perfection that some spots do, but they've achieved at least a high-quality, reliably tasty result.

That high level of critical asessment was evident to us, sitting at the bar, inches away from the counter where the pizzas were being assembled, then after emerging mere minutes later from the blazing-hot oven, sliced and readied for service. We saw a surprising number of pizzas being tossed in the trash, not measuring-up to the critical standards of chef Chris Painter, who gave each pie a careful inspection, including a few taps to the bottom to test the structural integrity of the crust, before slicing them and sending them out.

And it showed in the final product: the crusts were light and crisp, yet had a satisfying bread-like chewiness, not a crackery crunch. The tomato sauce was fresh and bright, although at least one member of our party felt that it might be overly-herby, too dark with oregano for his taste. Toppings were of high-quality, applied sparingly, although more generously than some of the hard-line Neapolitan joints.

We started with a required baseline pie: a basic Margherita, featuring nothing more than sauce, mozzarella and basil. I thought this was pretty dead-on, with a perfectly charred crust, a good balance of toppings, and a wonderful texture. There's always room for debate about sauce recipes and ideal degrees of doneness, but this pizza certianly hit a satisfying sweet-spot.

We also sampled one of the more ingulgent entries on the menu, the
Tartufu, featuring dollops of black truffle paste, a drizzle of truffle oil, and a raw egg cracked on top. It's carefully sliced to avoid breaking the yolk, so it arrives at the table intact, but the server then spreads it around with a spoon, which is probably a good idea, ensuring a more even distribution around the pizza, rather than it mostly running down into the cracks between slices.

Our server performed this maneuver before I could manage to snap a photo of the intact egg, but it's still pretty nice-looking... More importantly, it's quite tasty, with the earthy and rich flavors that you'd expect from its components. We found ourselves musing about how one more flavor would really put this over the top, but we never figured out exactly what that that flavor could be...

We quite enjoyed our seats at the counter, with a great view of the process, including a good angle right into the oven itself. And it turned out that those seats had another advantage: by total coincidence, Art Etchells from Foobooz sat down next to us, and before long, we'd negotiated a trade of some of our slices for a taste of his Pistachio pizza. Somehow, in the chaos of trading slices, I managed to forget to snap a photo, but I liked it enough that I'd order it again, and I promise to photograph it then! (And with a better camera too, I was caught without my usual gear, so all these photos are from my iPhone...) That pizza is an interpretation of one from Pizzaria Bianco, and while I haven't had the opportunity to try the original, the textures and flavors of this version, with merely nuts, Fontina and red onion, were quite good.

Another dining partner down the counter had a pizza with sausage, which had a great fennel kick, so I'm looking forward to trying a whole pizza with that topping soon.

We also tried what has become an unexpected favorite pizza of mine, the Marinara. This most minimal of pies features nothing more than their San Marzano tomato-based sauce, a little garlic, a few herbs. I've found that this expression of pizza lets one really taste the sauce, fully experience the crust. And it didn't disappoint, those very basic flavors and textures worked beautifully. We've had crusts with a little more character, sauce that sang with more freshness of pure tomato essence, but still Stella made a respectable showing even in this most demanding context.

The wine list is short and fairly basic, but hey, it's a pizza place. Mark-ups are predictably severe, except for the very drinkable house red, a Montepulciano that goes nicely with this food, and is available by the glass at a very reasonable price, I can't quite remember $5.50? $6.50? The wine is served in short tumblers, which somehow doesn't seem quite as annoying in this context as it is in some others. Our glasses, and the wine itself, were quite warm, we're hoping this is a simple procedural thing they can fix.

The space is pleasant enough, if a little generic and chain-like. It doesn't have that typical Starr design flair (although it does have the typical Starr loud clamor in the dining room.) None of us cared much for the large photo of Venice on the wall behind the oven. First, uh, why Venice? Second, it's just not that compelling of a photo, clearly a vintage shot of the grand canal, but not an especially exciting one. That said, I wasn't looking at the mural very much, I was more transfixed by the flames inside the oven, and the beautiful pizzas shuttling in and out.

It's a little too early to tell whether this will ultimately be a serious pizza destination, or merely a good option for the neo-Neapolitan style. But it's a real thrill to see this kind of pizza finally available in Philly, and the evident care with which the chefs were preparing the pizzas on opening night bodes well. I'll most certainly be working my way down the rest of the menu, which does include a few appetizers and salads, charcuterie, and even gelato, in addition to several more pizzas. I'm very happy to have Stella here, in Philly, and in a relatively accessible location at that.

A second visit revealed a couple of changes. The first was in the form of the pizza crust. They seem to be making the pizzas with a larger, thicker cornicione (the raised outer edge of the crust.) I'm not in favor of this development, I think this new style of crust creates edges that are too dense and chewy. I noticed other tables that had finished plates with piles of crust on them, not that unusual in an American-style pizzeria, but really shouldn't be happening in one going for more of a Neapolitan style. I found myself leaving parts of the outer crust uneaten as well, which I did not do on my first visit.

Also: they seem to have changed the sausage used as a topping. On our first visit, it was bright with fennel seed, with an appealing sweetness. This time, the flavor was much more muted, not exactly bad, but not nearly as interesting as before.

In better news, the pepperoni they use is quite tasty, so I quite enjoyed that pizza. The sauce, pepperoni, cheese and crust were in nice balance. Well, almost, there was that issue of the too-thick edges... The Philly outpost of Lombardi's pizza that was on 18th street near Sansom for a few years used to make a pretty killer pepperoni pizza, with slightly thicker slices of meat, and I wouldn't mind that here, but this is not a bad alternative.

Purists will scoff at pepperoni on a pizza, you're unlikely to find that topping many pizzas in Italy. In fact, you're unlikely to find pepperoni at all, it being an American thing... But I think the Italians are missing out! Sure, there are more complex spicy sausages that one could use instead, but there's something very appealing about pepperoni on a pizza. And if one gets good pepperoni, like the ones they make in-house at DiBruno's, I think it's even better in this use than a traditional soppressata or other southern-style
salame piccante.

The other good news is that some of the non-pizza offerings are worth checking out as well. We especially liked the Octopus and Squid appetizer. It's a chilled salad, with amazingly tender rings of squid (it could do with a higher percentage of octopus...) small chunks of potato, some herbs, and a light dressing. It's very nicely executed, and a pleasant contrast to hot doughy pizza.

Pizzaria Stella

420 South 2nd St (at Lombard)