As I approached the corner of 2nd and Lombard Streets, I found myself remembering the sights of last summer. A bustling sidewalk, polka dotted by little tables accented by the deep reds of tomatoes, and crispy edges of pizza crusts, glasses of wine and beer, bowls of salad greens and patrons enjoying themselves in the scorching temperatures we never seemed to be able to escape.
The reality of the situation was however, that the tables that once added color to the sidewalk were tucked away in storage, and I quickly had to shiver my way inside and out of my summer time fantasy world. I was finally a diner for the first time at one of Steven Starr’s latest babies, Pizzeria Stella, located on the wonderfully historical Headhouse Square.
A prime location for Philadelphia Magazine’s, #46 on the Philly Mag 50 best, where on a week night there is ample parking and on every night the charm of Society Hill’s magical cobblestones streets, and little alleys and ins and outs amp up the appeal. This “upper crust” of pizzerias shines warmly. Literally…
The establishment is a step closer to normalcy for Starr. You feel at home. Comfortable. You don’t have to dress up to fit in with the trendy crowd and the type of ambiance that usually exhibits something from another planet due to his usual choice of wacky lighting, strange seating arrangements, overly authentic wall art, and confusing menus at most of Starr’s other creations. The flashiest accessory in the place is the glowing brick oven graced with Miss Stella’s name. It is the centerpiece to the eatery, surrounded constantly by the dedicated faces of the pizza makers, focused solely on their perfectly crafted responsibilities rotating in and out of the oven.
Sitting in the very back corner of the dining room, I could use my hawk eyes and owl ears to take it all in. Craning my neck one way I could peep into a back entrance to the kitchen… Something one may find undesirable but I find fantastic. And opening up my ears I could hear the opinions of my fellow customers as they crunched into their pizzas or enjoyed the small silver saucers of gelato. All of my senses were fired up that is, until the antipasti arrived, and I could focus on nothing other than the upward movement of my forearm and fork from the small simple plates to my mouth. This was it; Stella’s arancini were finally at my fingertips.
Much anticipated but slightly let down. The breadcrumbs that should provide a substantial casing for the inner creamy risotto were a hint too fine, tasting mostly like oil and less like quality Italian bread crumbs. And once my fork found its way inside each golden fried tasting, the risotto was overcooked, stepping from the territory of perfectly manipulated riso to a hybrid between oatmeal and overcooked pasta. The flavors were certainly there, I loved the use of the ricotta to add to the creamy consistency, but nothing can be done to redeem something overcooked, not even the absolutely ridiculously flavorful tomato sauce that the arancini were bathing in.
Maybe I love these little golden masterpieces too much to not notice the imperfections, but luckily my guest and I also chose a few other dishes to begin our meal.
The grilled octopus. A must sample. Octopus with that unmistakably charred taste, further elaborated on at Stella by a little bit of heat from a salsa verde, a little bit of comfort from the crisped potato slices suctioned to the plate, and completed by a series of greens and hints of fennel. Just purely said, it is a well crafted dish.
As is the romaine salad. It is no mistake why they put “ricotta salada” as the first ingredient when describing this dish. It is the perfect cheese for a flawlessly light but satisfyingly small salad. Almost like a pseudo Greek Italian salad, each ingredient compliments the other and then with the added mix in of the fresh mint, your taste buds are pleased but they are also ready to bite into your entrée.
With twelve pizzas to choose from, and the restrictive rule that you are not allowed to add an ingredient to any one of them, deciding upon that entrée was less than easy. A slice of each please?
It’s almost more fun that way though. Knowing that any of the options would make you happy meanwhile, you have to choose between, god forbid, a combination of prosciutto, smoked mozzarella, and arugula belonging to the “San Daniele” or meatballs, san marzano tomato, ricotta, basil, and Sicilian oregano, belonging to the “Polpette”… I mean geez, don’t you feel bad for yourself!
Our pizzas of choice were impressive. The Polpette and the Spinach.
Each with their own individual flavors married by the amazingly thin, just right crispy crust, and the smokiness of the wood fired womb they both come from. Stella has created its own style, and its own recipe that I have yet to taste coming from another pizzeria. Bravo!
May I not fail to mention that the house red, a fantastically easy to sip Montepuliciano d’Abruzzo went well with each dish that found its way to my table. The wine list, for the caliber of restaurant that Stella embodies, is legitimate and intriguing. As are the mixture of local and imported beers that most all of the other patrons were enjoying an endless flow of at their tables full of pizzas and tasting plates.
Along with a glass of wine or mug of beer, everyone certainly made a point to enjoy a little scoop of house made gelato and biscotti to complete their meals. The stracciatella and the hazelnut variations brought me back to the hillsides of Tuscany, no exaggeration.
Not icy, not overly sweet, and exceptionally velvety, it was the cherry on top of a very authentic meal, without the fake red food coloring of the sundae cherry.
When you find yourself feeling at home at a restaurant, it is usually the case that you are in no rush to leave. Pizzeria Stella has that charm. It is not flashy even though it comes with the Steven Starr seal, and it certainly is not a place where you leave feeling anything but comforted and satisfied. I know I found myself disappointed that my meal was over… and as I scurried out into the cold, in the back of my mind I was already trying to plan out a return visit. That’s a good sign. [A A A A]
Week night escape.
Quick in and out eat.
Decent bar scene.