Stephen Starr’s Stella Secrets
Think Stephen Starr is too big-time for nitty-gritty planning? Hardly. We shared a slice with the restaurateur and got the scoop on how he made his newest project, Pizzeria Stella, into something special.
Concept: I had the pizza idea two years ago. I was never really able to find great pizza here. Then, with the economy the way it is and people gravitating toward comfort food, I felt this was the perfect time. My director of operations thinks I haven’t been this obsessed with ingredients since the opening of the first Continental.
Location: I went to Paris, to the flea market, and saw some light fixtures and thought, These could go in the pizza spot — but I didn’t have a pizza spot. Then I saw the old Cosi space [at 2nd and Lombard] and loved it. It’s a corner that has sort of been abandoned, but the farmers’ market is across the street. The fixture, the corner — it all came together. I thought, That’s my pizza restaurant.
Pie research: We started in Manhattan. We realized Brooklyn is really where it’s all happening, so we went to Franny’s, Motorino, and a few other places. We went to Pepe’s in New Haven, twice, and to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. We liked a little bit of that one, a little bit of this one. In the end, the pizza isn’t a copy of anything, but an improvement on the stuff that we saw and ate.
Oven search: I talked to [celebrity chef] Mario Batali and [New York restaurateur] Joe Bastianich. We wound up choosing an oven that was recommended by Chris Bianco [from Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix]. It’s wood-burning and gets up to 900 degrees. It cost $20,000.
Making dough: Chris Painter, our culinary director, worked with our baker, Jim McAleese from Parc. Through trial and error, we figured out the perfect blend of flour. Having a baker as part of the process was really helpful. We were looking for dough that was a little firmer and crispier than straight-up Neapolitan style.
Sauce snooping: We staked out one of the pizzerias with the best sauce. I tried to get the waitress to tell me the type of tomatoes they use. I even poked around near the kitchen and asked the pizza maker, who said they were San Marzanos but wouldn’t tell me the brand. So I sent someone to stand outside the restaurant and wait for the delivery guy to come. It’s a jungle out there; you gotta do what you gotta do.