420 South 2nd Street, 215-320-8000
Average Pizza Price: $15.
Drink: The excellent Kutztown sodas.
Get: A seat at the pizza bar, for an up-close look at the pies being shaped and baked.
Stella, Stephen Starr’s new pizzeria, is less flashy than some of his other restaurants. Noisy kids wave sippy cups while harried parents drink Stella’s house red out of tumblers. Customers wait for takeout at the hostess stand. The subway-tiled walls are anything but fussy, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa-print wallpaper is kitschy-cute. The vibe is laid-back enough that strangers are willing to sit cheek-to-jowl at cramped communal tables.
But this low-maintenance atmosphere belies a serious approach to pizza craftsmanship. Starr’s food team steeped itself in the country’s best pies before culinary director Chris Painter and chef Shane Solomon took to the test kitchen to work out recipes. The dough unusually airy and crisp, with just the right hint of chew combines high-gluten bread flour and doppio zero, an ultra-fine-milled variety from Italy. Precision rules at the oven; routine inspections keep the quality consistent, and each pizza’s underside is perfectly char-freckled, even if that means some pies are pitched in the trash.
There are no duds on this pizza menu, but the vongole pie is exceptionally good. The white pizza perfumes the table with the aromas of toasty bread and tender bits of topneck clam, a larger specimen that’s better for picking up the oven’s wood flavors. The moisture from the fresh clams turns the crust a bit soft, sacrificing some of the crunch that makes the drier pies, especially the pistachio, so good, but the trade-off is worth it. These Neapolitan numbers aren’t meant to have the rigid foundation that defines a great crust for some aficionados.
The antipasti are worth a taste, too, especially the arancini, fried balls of creamy risotto stuffed with mushrooms and shallots. But you’ll probably find yourself wishing you had room for another slice of classic pepperoni, or for the note-perfect marinara, in which the red sauce has a nice balance of sweetness and acidity. Service has the typical Starr polish, though the staff’s drive to turn tables can make you feel a bit rushed. Checks are pricey for pizza; a lunch of one antipasto, a couple 10-inch pies and two sodas will set you back about $50. But it’s a fair price to pay for pizza perfection.