Stella Starr

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With my friend Judith Klinger's words
that she prefers to go to Pizzeria Stella in Philadelphia for pizza rather than stay in NYC , I had to taste for myself. I since suggested that another
good friend try it when he was in Philadelphia and his raves seemed
to match Judith's, amplifying my interest even further. To clarify,
Judith is someone whose opinions about food, especially Italian food,
I take seriously, very seriously. Judith and her husband Jeff live
half their year in NYC and half their year in Montone, Italy, where
they have successfully opened an Italian restaurant. Judith also
keeps a blog, Aroma Cucina, in which she writes a lot and very well
about Italian food. I have also dined with Judy and Jeff. They know
their Italian food. I also value my other friend's opinion.
Individually or together, their opinions spurred me to visit Pizzeria
Stella.

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On a recent weekend in Philadelphia, a
get together with other food obsessed friends was a perfect way to
try Pizzeria Stella, Philadelphia über-restaurateur Stephen Starr's
foray into the world of Neapolitan style pizza. Stella, of course,
means “star” in Italian, which means that Starr effectively named
the restaurant after himself. I guess he was serious about making
good pizze.

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The restaurant, located in a corner
building in a lovely part of old Philadelphia, is bright and
expansive with plenty of windows opening out onto both streets. A
new, adjacent bar makes the restaurant even bigger. The central pizza
making station is spacious and centered around a classic domed
Neapolitan wood-fired beehive oven with the name Stella tiled in on
the oven's transom. The internal fire, off to one side of the oven,
was raging when we arrived for an early dinner. A row of bar stools
overlooking the workings of the oven and around it stood empty when
we arrived.

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Our focus was on the pizza, but we
decided to warm up our appetites with a couple of orders of arancini,
Sicilian fried stuffed rice balls named for their resemblance to
“little oranges.” While not quite at the rapturous level of my
beloved Ferdinando's Foccaceria or those made by Ana Tasca Lanza at
The Regaleali Estate in Sicily, these were still quite good. The size
of small meatballs, they were tightly packed with herbs and melted
cheese in the center. They were smothered in a good marinara tomato
sauce with shaved parmesan (pecorino or especially cacciocavallo
would have been more Sicilian) strewn on top. The exteriors of the
arancini were perfectly crisp and fried just right. These were
compact balls that would not simply fall apart. The rice was al
dente, perhaps a touch too much to my taste. The only real flaw of
these fine morsels, though, was a relative lack of flavor compared to
the virtuous examples cited above. I attribute that to a mildly
flavored filling and the failure to use a saffron laced risotto
milanese for the rice base. While these were in fact, very good and
technically beautiful, I would have preferred a more inherently
full-flavored rice ball with less sauce. Nevertheless, they provided
a lovely start, as it is hard to find rice balls in this country as
good as these outside of a Sicilian-American home kitchen.

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We ordered 8 pizze. Unfortunately, I
failed to request that they come out in waves. Instead. they arrived
essentially simultaneously, one after another arriving at the table
in short order. Since we ordered all the pies cut to share, this
meant that not all the pies could be sampled fresh and hot by
everyone without rushing through each slice.

Stella Starr

As much as I would have liked to order
every pie on the menu, there were simply too many to choose from, so
we had to leave a few to try another time. Of course, we had to order
the gold standard of Neapolitan pies, the Pizza Margherita,
so-named after the former Queen of Italy. The pie, dressed in the
red, green and white colors of the Italian flag, contained San
Marzano tomato sauce, basil and fresh mozzarella di bufala blended on
a crisply seared crust. The basil was justly applied just before
serving preserving its aromatic strength. The buffalo milk mozzarella
was soft and creamy and the sauce flavorful without overpowering the
pizza. The crust was well charred with an adequate number of bubbles.
While the center of the pie was a tad soft, it held up to eating by
hand. While I would not say this was the best pizza napolitana
I have had in the US (for one, I prefer that of Keste in NYC), it was
damn good and would have been worth the visit even if it was the
only pie we had.

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Thankfully, we had other pies to sample
too. Each was expertly prepared with only personal preference
separating one from another. From a list of specials we selected a
pizza with Squash Blossoms, ricotta, basil, San Marzano
tomato sauce, mozzarella and a little chili oil, which gave it a fair
kick. As was the case for all the rest of the pizze, the pizza was
beautiful with a lot of flavor. Squash blossoms are a great vehicle,
but don't generally provide a wallop of flavor, usually relying on an
aromatic stuffing within. In the case of this pizza, the flavor came
from the other ingredients with the blossoms providing just a subtle
component.

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The Sausage Pizza
also had a kick, this time from the “long hot pesto”, which also
added a splash of bright green color to the pie. The kick was
balanced by tomato, basil and mozzarella. The Polpette
pizza was amongst my favorites. In addition to the sliced meatballs,
it contained ricotta, the same tomato sauce, basil and Sicilian
oregano. The most aromatic of the pies, no surprise, was the Tartufo,
which came with black truffle, fontina, an egg, which was spread out
around the pie by the server and parmesan. It was yummy. I expected
the Piccante with capicola, aged provolone, crushed red
pepper and tomato to be devilishly spicy, but it was no more so than
the sausage or squash blossom pizze. Delicious despite being
over-charred on one side and the most novel combination, the
Pistachio also had red onion (added after the oven),
fontina and extra virgin olive oil. Surprisingly, my favorite pie was
the Spinach, which came with oven roasted tomato,
mozzarella and pine nuts. I shouldn't have been surprised as I
generally love that combination and so I did here.

 

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While I was not as enamored of Pizzeria
Stella as my friend Judith, I did like it a lot. The quality and
overall experience is such that it has to be considered one of the
better artisanal pizza restaurants in the country, especially of
those practicing Neapolitan style pizza. Though I consider it a notch
below Keste, correctly timed Grimaldi's (in Brooklyn) and certainly
Pepe's in New Haven ( the latter two are not strictly Neapolitan
style pizzerias, at least not la vera pizza napolitana), it
is most certainly
worth
a visit for any pizza afficionado when visiting the City of Brotherly
Love.


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2 Responses to Stella Starr

  1. Ciao John! Thanks for the kind words! So happy you liked Stella. Hope you weren’t in Philly during the recent heat wave, it sounded brutal.
    Our friend, The Pizza Guru, likes to say, “It is an eternal quest for “a” perfect pizza, not ‘the’ perfect pizza because it’s a moving target.” Where one day you find perfection, the next time, it’s merely ok. Which only means we have to keep on searching and eating pizza! Not that I’m complaining.
    And I totally agree the Margherita is the gold standard, it was my first choice as well. And I’m totally jealous that you were able to sample 8 pies…how divine!
    When are you coming to Umbria for a Pizza Pilgrimage??

  2. John Sconzo says:

    You are correct about the moving target and the quest for perfection. Of course, that is not limited to pizza.
    I hope to come to Umbria soon for pizza and other things. It has been too long since I have been to my ancestral homeland!

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