Stephen Starr is doing just pizza and doing it right: Artisan slices, simple to decadent, consistently excellent and affordable.
Update (revisited often, most recently in November 2010):
Trend-collector Stephen Starr launched Philly's year-of-the-high-end-pizza with this casual and bustling space in Headhouse Square, where the wood-fired ovens quickly helped raise the city's sagging pizza scene to a new level. The delicate Neapolitan-style pies, topped with everything from truffled cheese and a spreadable egg yolk to sausage with long hot pepper pesto, or the magnificently simple sauce-only Marinara, are clearly top-notch, with arguably the city's best puff-and-crunch dough.
This kid-friendly destination has been happily frequented by my own family as much as any new restaurant. But as the year progressed, ambitious competitors arrived with a greater zeal for house-made toppings, Starr's kitchen "A-Team" moved on to other projects, and the restaurant's overall limitations (an uninspired wine and beer list with clunky tumblers; the addition of mediocre pasta; a general lack of inspired menu evolution) made it clear that Stella, no matter how welcome its arrival was, did not belong anymore in exclusive three-bell company.
My friend Ed Levine grabs a slice by its puffy outer lip, lifts it high over the table, and peers at its crusty underside with the knowing eyes of a mechanic looking under the hood of a tomato-red sports coupe.
"Uh-huh . . . " he says softly, examining the margherita at Pizzeria Stella and starting to tick through his checklist. The "leoparding" is gorgeous, he says, indicating the perfect constellation of charry dots and heat blisters scattered across the crust. There's a nice rise to the edge, which inflates like a bike tire around the pie. And then there is the chew, a distinct yet delicate outer crisp, giving way to an inner tenderness that has just the right amount of salt and a roasty hint of wood smoke.
"It's substantial. It's dynamic without being heavy. This," he says, "is very good." A tone of concession then creeps into his voice. "I'm pleasantly surprised."
A pizza compliment coming from Ed Levine - a visiting New York-based food writer and founder of Seriouseats.com who traveled the world to write his book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven - means a lot. And though it was only the first of my several visits, I had to agree: The Neapolitan-style pies coming from Stella's wood-fired hearth are outstanding, from the simplest marinara (a sunburst of tomato gilded with little more than plucked oregano leaves and shaved garlic) to the sheer decadence of the tartufo (a richly truffled white pie so fragrant, we could smell its earthy luxury the moment one landed three tables away, where a server burst the soft-roasted egg yolk on top and painted the cheese with a luminous shine). There were some small exceptions, but Stella, overall, has raised the bar for pizza-craft in Philly, which, until lately, has been inexplicably low.
Levine's qualifier of "pleasantly surprised," however, certainly caught my ear. Even in New York, it seems, Stephen Starr (who runs mega versions of Buddakan and Morimoto there) has earned a reputation as a flashy impresario and concept collector who has benefited from the fact that Philly is perpetually a couple of years behind the national trend curve. It's a sentiment I hear often from local foodies, too, who have been conditioned into a sort of reflexive Starr fatigue after his decade of domination.
And though once again he has followed the über pizza trend from New York and the West Coast, there are no color-shifting booths or fusion flavors here. No elaborately designed retro shtick. Stella, with its 80 seats set into a former Cosi that's now wrapped with bare wood planks and eggplant-colored tiles, a marble counter-trimmed open pizza kitchen, and cafe windows that look wide onto Headhouse Square, has the unpretentious warmth of a genuine neighborhood restaurant. The affordable Italian wine list is served in tumblers (albeit clunky ones). The pizzas don't top $17. It's no wonder I saw the same Queen Village friends and their kids numerous times on my repeat visits. I saw our family doctor. I saw our butcher.
Even more impressive is that Stella has managed to so adeptly channel something as elusive, nuanced, and capricious as artisan pizza. Despite its cheese-laden commercial ubiquity, real pizza is one of the hardest things a chef can master at a consistently high level. Osteria's pies have long been my local gold standard (like the new homemade mortadella pie with pistachio pesto), but pizza's only a small part of what they do. The recent arrival of SliCe and its crackery Trenton-style crust has filled a much-needed niche for the take-out trade. I like Tacconelli's without their powdered garlic (especially at the South Jersey branch, where the servers aren't surly and no one needs to reserve dough). But no restaurant has refined the eat-in pizza experience with the single-minded focus, quality ingredients, and overall finesse of Stella.
The menu is refreshingly small but smart, with a handful of well-crafted starters to round out an easy meal. There are soulful lentils stewed with sausage, comforting bowls of chicken and passatelli noodle soup, roasted onions glossed with balsamic, crispy arancini rice balls, and a romaine salad that I'd actually want to eat laced with crunchy cucumber, shaved ricotta salata, and a subtle dusting of fresh mint. A handful of fresh gelati in little metal dishes are a simple but satisfying way to finish the meal. (Made at Jones, the pistachio, hazelnut and blackberry were my favorites.)
But it is the dozen or so pizzas that are really worth the occasional half-hour wait for one of the no-reservations seats. Starr's crew, led by culinary director Chris Painter, did their homework, logging hundreds of miles to investigate the country's best pizzerias, experimenting with umpteen dough recipes, adjusting for the ever-changing whims of temperature and humidity, and fine-tuning the oven's blaze, down to timing the occasional fistful of pecan chips - poof! - to keep flames rolling halfway up that dome.
That leaping 800-degree inferno, Painter says, is crucial to give the pie's outer collar its balloon-like lift, a Neapolitan-style soft-dough signature that's been firmed up here with just a touch of harder bread-flour crisp. That style, in a 12-inch round, may be foreign to big pie-practicing Philadelphians. (Though Starr has something for them, too, with a New York-style pizza take-out/delivery nook planned soon beside Parc.) But the ever-talented Painter has given Stella's pizzas the same culinary attention he devoted to creating the menus at Tangerine or Angelina.
Pizzaiolos must first be judged by their feel for pizza's purest expressions - the simple reds - and it's a measure by which Stella rises high. The margherita blends the brightness of raw San Marzano tomato sauce, milky sweet clouds of buffalo mozzarella, Sicilian sea salt, and plumes of basil, as good as any in town (OK . . . just shy of Osteria's). My favorite, though, was a marinara that took me right back to the venerable Da Michele in Naples. It's a cheeseless tomato round, but deceptively plain: The cooked sauce intensifies even further beneath a streak of olive oil that, in this oven's supernova heat, adds a caramelizing effect, singeing the oregano leaves until they add an herbal pop, coaxing warm ambrosia from clove-sized fans of shaved garlic.
The "Bianca" white pie, blending fontina, Taleggio, and two kinds of mozzarella, is the least memorable of Stella's basics. But it serves as a vivid template for variations where more elaborate toppings jump off the crust - a "San Daniele" that tangles fresh prosciutto and arugula over the subtle woodiness of smoked mozz; a pistachio and red onion combo that's irresistible (albeit a knockoff from Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianca); an earthy chanterelles special that scattered a forest-full of golden mushrooms, rosemary, Taleggio, and walnuts beneath translucent slices of melting Italian lardo.
Painter's "vongole" is also a white-based pizza, and I'm glad to learn they've begun mincing the clams more coarsely since I tasted it, when the clam-burger texture just wasn't quite right. It was one of the very few false notes in four meals, although there were others. The slippery-skinned octopus salad was oversalted. The typically vegetarian ribollita soup was overwhelmed by the intrusion of pancetta. The ricotta gelato was a shade too lemony. And I'd hoped for a bolder taste of fennel on the finocchio-olive pie.
Delivering intensity of flavors on a microscopically thin crust, though, is rarely Stella's issue. The "Piccante" builds its spiciness in layers, with zesty hot coppa and capicola meats pairing with sharply aged provolone, ratcheting the volume up to a pepper-flake pique. The crumbles of good Cappuccio's sausage, meanwhile, get an Italian Market zing from a pesto made of long hot peppers, a clever touch that resonates boldly but doesn't burn.
With such obvious pizza wonders, my friend Ed conceded that the leap for Stella from "very good" to "greatness" was merely a matter of his return visit: "Consistency is everything." Too bad for him New York's so far. I've been back three times since that meal, and will surely return soon. Because Stella, by Philly's measure or any other, is already there.