At Pizzeria Stella, not just the pies are flat

0301510_pizza_400
Sous chef Matt Conover keeps a safe distance from Pizzeria Stella's wood-burning oven as he pulls a finished pie from it.

WITH SO much talk about Pizzeria Stella, at Head House Square, it seemed time to head on over and find out if this upper-crust pizzeria was the real deal, or just blowing smoke from its wood-burning oven.

In my mind, few starters stimulate the appetite better than prosciutto from the San Daniele region, so an order ($10) went in before we even made our pie choices.

One of the characteristics for preferring this cured ham over Prosciutto di Parma is that it is slightly sweeter, less salty, and the texture is softer. Imagine my surprise when our order came with rolled-up cigar lumps of this delicacy.

Why bother to slice it thinly if you are going to serve it as a wad?

On a separate visit, we opted instead for the Octopus and Calamari ($9) antipasti, which also disappointed. We really had to search for the octopus, and the potatoes were positively overcooked. There were no notes of acidity in the vinaigrette, so the dish was flabby in texture and flavor.

The Arancini ($8), or rice croquettes seasoned with Parmesan, were well-breaded and evenly cooked, if not a little bland. The puddle of marinara sauce they were served in was much too salty.

In fact, I have to say that for all the hype about Stella's search for the perfect San Marzano tomato product, the tomato sauce falls flat across the board.

I'm told that there are two tomato sauces, but one is indistinguishable from the other and both are oversalted.

Despite the disappointing sauce, the pizza deemed the best by my tasters was the Margherita ($13). There was just the right ratio of buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil.

The Vongole ($17) was also well-received, and tasters described it as bold and lustily flavored. Minced clams were nestled among perfectly cooked broccoli rabe, and a smoky pancetta gave a nice saline undertow with the scamorza.

The Tartufo ($17) isn't for everyone, but I enjoyed this white pie topped with a barely cooked egg and the drama of the server releasing the creamy yolk and swirling it to set up in the hot fontina cheese. The truffle oil can give you palate fatigue, so this is best for sharing. And it would be nice served with a little side salad of peppery arugula to cut the richness - a little extra touch for a pizza that is costing you nearly $3 for a small slice.

Both the meat pies we sampled - Sausage ($15) and Piccante ($14) - were much too salty. One would expect that the capacolla and aged provolone would be salty, but the sauce took it over the edge.

I did find it surprising that Stephen Starr would opt for a wood-burning oven given his love of precision. On one visit the crust was almost undercooked and on another visit it was dangerously close to overcharred.

The wine list offers a decent selection, and I found the addition of the Lo Duca Lambrusco fun - if not misidentified as sweet when it leaned much more toward half-dry or dry, which is a shame because it pairs so well with the pizzas and is a nice surprise on the list.

I don't mind the tumblers instead of a wine glass, but the pour was downright stingy for the price. Not to mention that on one visit the server was completely mystified when a glass of Casalone Tuscan blend appeared to be suffering from cork taint.

The conversation went something along the lines of:

Guest: "You might want your beverage director to taste this, it seems to be corked."

Server: "Oh, I just opened it."

Guest trying to help her out: "I think it has been tainted by the cork."

Server: "Do you want me to strain it?"

Even if you don't know that a bad cork can make the wine taste like a moldy book, the only response here is, "Let me have someone check on that. Would you like a replacement?"

At a lunch visit when I had a toddler in tow, another server displayed a negative tone to even the simplest question about the menu and clearly didn't want to be wasting time on a table with a child.

The problem I've always encountered with Starr Restaurants is that they feel like the passion is in the business office, not the food. And there's always this atmosphere that's reminiscent of EPCOT Center - I'm not visiting the real Morocco, just someone's idea of what I would find there if I actually got in a plane and went there.

But Starr's waitstaffs have always been well-trained, if not a bit Stepford-like. And some of his chefs have turned out consistently memorable meals.

Given the missteps in the service, the unpredictable wood-burning oven and the sticker shock when the check comes, it's hard to see Stella as something produced by Starr Restaurants.

Which all makes me wonder, Stephen, if your Starr is falling.


Pizzeria Stella

420 S. 2d St. (at Lombard), Philadelphia; 215-320-8000, www.pizzeriastella.net.

Trend-collector Stephen Starr has gone casual with his bustling new pizza parlor in Headhouse Square, but the wood-fired ovens here have also raised Philly's lagging pizza scene to a new level with delicate Neoapolitan-style pies built on great ingredients and arguably the city's best puff-and-crunch dough. The menu's straightforward focus, plus a few well-crafted starters, gelatos, and affordable wines to round out a meal, make this hot spot a refreshingly family-friendly destination.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

Pizzas (margherita; marinara; sausage; tartufo; piccante; San Daniele; chanterelles special); arancini; balsamic onion; lentil-sausage ragu; sheep's milk ricotta; romaine salad; gelati (pistachio; hazelnut; blackberry).

DRINKS

A small 15-label selection of affordable Italian table wines, entirely under $45 a bottle and $10 a glass, could still use some refinement. The Bibbiano "Casalone" super-Tuscan is a favorite, as is the Sicilian white fiano from MandraRossa and Zonin prosecco. The stemless glasses are appropriately unpretentious, but these tumblers are too clunky to be cool. The tiny beer selection has some decent Italian and craft choices, but could also be expanded.

IF YOU GO

Entire menu served Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, until 11; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Reservations not available.

Validated parking (after 7) in Park America lot on Lombard Street behind restaurant, $8 on Friday, $10 Saturday, $4 Sunday through Thursday.

Continue Reading