Have you been to South Philly’s hot new pide-ria? You likely won’t find it on Google.
But if you head to charming Stina Pizzeria on Snyder Avenue, then take a left turn on its menu past the pizza section, you’ll find a list of boat-shaped Turkish “pide” breads stuffed with an array of evocative toppings, from house-made lamb merguez to truffled mushrooms in molten Taleggio cheese, that are worth the trip. With their pointy tips and sloping crusts folded over like half-open envelopes of savory intrigue, they’re infinitely more engaging — in texture, flavor, and function — than the familiar rounds of Margherita and pepperoni pies that take the obligatory top billing at this inviting new addition to the neighborhood around West Passyunk Avenue.
Even better, if you turn your gaze a bit farther north on that menu, you’ll find even brighter Mediterranean inspirations, from gorgeous manti dumplings to flavorful kebabs, lustily roasted vegetarian options, and a stunning new octo contender for Philly’s Top Tentacle. And they’re all so good, I had to wonder why chef Bobby Saritsoglou and his wife, Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou, decided to open a pizzeria to begin with?
Well, for one thing, they built the entire 24-seat restaurant around a wood-fired Morello pizza oven imported from Genoa that was installed inside the gutted shell of this century-old storefront before an inviting new glass facade was put back on: “Whoever takes this place over after I go will have to make pizzas, too — there’s no way out!” joked Saritsoglou.
The real reasons, though, have more to do with location and security — and perhaps the unintentional tug of legacy. Bobby’s father, Constantinos “Gus” Saritsoglou, was also a “pizzadoro,” working local pizzerias in the area from the time he immigrated here from Greece until he died 11 years ago.
“It’s something that I’ve fought all of my life,” says Bobby, who had once had hoped to be an architect. “I want to be better than my dad and do things differently. But something drew me back to cooking.”
So Saritsoglou worked in finer restaurants, like Will BYOB and Opa, where he showed a natural touch for creatively updated Greek cuisine. But when it came time to launch his own venture with Christina, the notion of a solid pizza program in a neighborhood that needed it seemed like a safe play. The couple saw a gap on Philly’s new-guard pizza map in this rising neighborhood west of Broad Street, a zone that finally seems to be clicking just south of hip Point Breeze and west of East Passyunk. There are a pair of smart craft breweries (Brewery ARS and Second District). One of Philly’s lesser-known Vietnamese gems, Cafe Nhan, is turning out destination-worthy bowls of funky, soulful bún bò Huế đặc biệt soup. One of my Mexican favorites, Cafe y Chocolate, is planning to move into a Snyder Avenue space nearby behind the Melrose — the classic diner (just reopened after a fire) that has been that neighborhood’s touchstone forever.
But in many ways, the modern pizzeria now fills the role our disappearing diners once held as community hubs, that casual place where honest food served at fair prices can draw a wide audience of regulars. And Stina exudes some of those qualities on a cozy scale, with an affordable menu that tops out at $14 (specials run slightly higher), a commitment to scratch cooking, and a warmth that radiates from its outgoing service and quirky decor. Its brick walls are hung with gilt-framed curios that can be described as American Picker chic, from antique ice tongs and an old farm tool pierced with nails to a prized portrait of Telly Savalas: “Who loves ya, baby?!” says Saritsoglou, with an impressive Kojak swagger only a kid who grew up very Greek in Upper Darby could deliver.
Saritsoglou credits the design to Christina, for whom the place is named. As the executive director of Philly AIDS Thrift, her career in social activism has also informed Stina’s charitable instincts. A monthly portion of its gross sales (including 20% on the final Tuesday of each month) goes to support a different nonprofit, from the refugee assistance agency Seamaac to the Stephen Girard Elementary School library a block away.
Stina has all the ingredients to become a lasting neighborhood fixture, including a safe selection of Neapolitan-style pizzas that are good enough to fulfill its local mission — no matter if the red sauce is too sweet for my tastes or if the blistered crusts on some of our pies were floppy and scorched black across the bottom. Aside from a couple of interesting options — a lemony white pie with shaved eggplant, za’atar, and feta; a Greek-style Bolognese scented with cinnamon — these were not destination pizzas.
A more compelling draw exists on the rest of Saritsoglou’s menu, which is full of vibrant personal takes on pan-Mediterranean flavors you cannot find under one roof anywhere else in the city. That begins with the alluring manti, a large-format take on Turkish dumplings, with minted lamb stuffed inside pyramids of fresh saffron pasta dabbed with clouds of whipped yogurt and orange swirls of Aleppo pepper-infused olive oil. They’re limited nightly, so come early. I loved the seasonal touch of Cretan honey and summer peaches (now plums and soon apples) that embellished the warm borek pies of flaky phyllo stuffed with oregano-dusted kashkaval cheese.
An aromatic house baharat spice blend of smoked paprika, coriander, cumin, turmeric, and sumac is a transporting workhorse seasoning. It elevated the tender chicken kebabs dusted with walnut dukkah spice and pomegranate seeds, the spit-roasted chicken shawarma shaved over soft fresh pita, as well as a head-turning hunk of cauliflower traced with the winsome char of the pizza oven and drizzles of creamy tahini and herbaceous chermoula.
But no dish caught my eye more than Stina’s octopus. It’s patiently simmered for hours to flavorful tenderness with citrus, herbs, and fennel, then roasted to a crunchy-sucker crisp in the oven. That’s when the meaty arm lands like an artful “S” on the plate, dappled with flowers, curving between dramatic swipes of black garlic sauce, scoops of olive tapenade and smoky red romesco, and a whiff of citrus ash made from dehydrated lemons and oranges. It’s as beautiful a sign as any here of Saritsoglou’s Greek roots — a cuisine he was prohibited from cooking at Stina until a non-compete agreement with Opa expired in August.
He’s free now to go hella Helenic, if he chooses, and that explains why the baharat-spiced beef lasagna, for example, will soon make way for a pastitsio. The desserts lean Greek already, with weekly variations on baklava (white chocolate-walnut; walnut and cardamom) and a “bougatsa” vanilla milk pie set with agar-agar before it’s wrapped in a phyllo crust.
But Saritsoglou — and his trademark wild mustache — have never fit comfortably into one box. He’s far more suited to roam across an entire region’s worth of flavors, painting vivid curry-yellow swirls of turmeric aioli beneath marble-sized potatoes and smoked cippolini onions, lending a puttanesca zing of capers and spice to spaghetti sauce with mussels, or floating a whiff of Morocco over the ground beef kofta with saffron yogurt. Morocco inspired another of my favorite flavors here, a special lamb tagine of tender shank meat over couscous interspersed with the unexpected crunch and tang of pickled beans.
There’s always risk of overreach in such a broad menu, with hummus that’s coarse and pasty (but thin by Greek standards, insists the chef), a fatoush salad with unfortunately soggy pieces of pita that missed the texture point (a little toasty is best), and an open-faced pita with baked falafel and a mountain of veggies that was both dry and unwieldy. Stina’s Italian hoagie is full of its own big ambitions — a house-baked roll seasoned with za’atar, good Italian meats, sharp cheese, and on-theme sumac onions. And it tasted great, but again, location matters. This neighborhood may be a mini-pizza desert, but there’s still plenty of hoagies at nearby delis I prefer.
Stina’s pides, though, are special. Their fanciful shape — long and skinny on Stina’s table — brings to mind the stuffed khachapuri of Northeast Philly’s Georgian bakeries. Here, they evoke more dragon boat than canoe. One even comes stuffed with an egg, goat cheese, and braised greens. But I was especially taken with a smoky lamb merguez variation, whose gamy sausage spice was cut by cool taboule salad layered over top. The dough is the same as the pizza’s. But for whatever reason, it behaves differently when it’s folded over into a pide boat — more delicate, more crackly, and more irresistible as it rolls up around its perfect heart.