We stopped in Stephen Starr's new pizzeria off South St., Stella, a while back for an early 5pm Saturday dinner, and were quite surprised to see the joint already at near capacity so early in the evening. Don't know why it was surprising, because a sit-down pizza restaurant that's simultaneously family-friendly and quasi-chic is certainly one dining option that was sorely missing in the surrounding South St., Queen Village, and Society Hill neighborhoods.
With it being a little too chilly for outdoor seating, and all of the four-top tables along the periphery occupied, we were about to be seated amongst (gasp) families with young children at one of the long communal tables in the center of the loud and boisterous restaurant for what would have surely been a miserable dining experience.
Thinking fast, I requested to be moved to the bar in front of the wood burning pizza oven and the assembly line of pizza makers churning out pizzas rhythmically. Basking in the warmth of the wood-fired oven with a mesmerizing show of pizza making to entertain, I recommend any small party to opt for the bar.
Stella's menu is short and straight forward with only antipasti, charcuterie, soups and salads, pizza, and gelato. A short list of wine and beer is available, but may be too short for a town filled with so many knowledgeable and avid drinkers.We started with the grilled radicchio salad with Gorgonzola, dried cherries, walnuts, and balsamic vinaigrette, an average but slightly interesting salad, especially when your fork found one of the few large globs of melted Gorgonzola.
Before I go on with my review of Stella, let me say that I am not a pizza snob or connoisseur. I have no preference for thick or thin crust, I don't look down my nose at deep dish, nor do I discount a pizza with Cheddar cheese. As long as the pizza is not burned or undercooked, and it tastes good, I don't get my panties in a wad over pizza. So, I appreciate that Stephen Starr combed NY and other cities to find the ultimate pizza and modeled his pizzeria after his discoveries, but it may all be a little lost on me.
Pizzas come in one size, about 12-inches, and are great for splitting with another person if you're not ravenous, although most tables seemed to order one per person.We went with one of the more interesting sounding pizzas, the Pistachio with red onions, pistachio, Fontina, and extra virgin olive oil. With only a smattering of crushed pistachios on the olive oil-based pizza, the extremely thin sliced onions and Fontina cheese were the real star of the pizza. Anytime I see a restaurant use extremely thin sliced raw onion, I know that they have a great understanding of the onion — raw must be sliced thinly or diced small; if using large chunks, they need to be caramelized.
The bottom and top of the crust was blistered with a few charred bubbles, but certainly not overcooked or burned. Those pizzas cook fast! We witnessed them throw away a few pizzas when the oven master took his eye off the oven for only a few seconds. Some pizza snobs do a crust test by holding up a slice, and if any more than the first inch of the tip droops, it's no good. Stella would have failed this test, but I'm not a snob. I usually fold and bite, or rip small pieces off with my hands and shove them in my mouth.Keeping it simple, dessert is your choice of a few different house-made gelato flavors. Chocolate, pistachio, olive oil, and Ricotta were up for that evening. We decided on the smooth, mild flavored Ricotta topped with a miniature anise seed biscotti, a perfect ending to the meal.
We waited about five minutes longer than we should have for our gelato, although we were unaware of this since we were having a fabulous time watching the pizzas being made, but our server volunteered to comp our dessert when he noticed we didn't have any in front of us. If only more restaurants comped for their mistakes. It leaves such a pleasant taste in the mouth.
Does Stella make the best pizza in town? I don't know, and I don't care. It's conveniently located near us, and is one of the only sit-down destination pizza restaurants near us, so I'll be back. A seat at the bar and dazzling pizza show is really what made the trip fabulous.
420 S. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19147