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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.