- Griffin Swartzell
- The potato pizza got mixed reviews but Stellina’s Polpetta was a crowd-pleaser.
While the city waits for the arrival of storied local spot The Blue Star’s third illustrious iteration (...no news yet) the Shooks Run neighborhood can stop in and see what the Blue Star Group can do with Italian food. Stellina Pizza Cafe stands where the Little Market & Deli once stood, a historic neighborhood spot currently co-owned by BSG owner and local restaurateur Joseph Coleman. He and Will Merwin, a former Blue Star chef, brushed up on their Italian cooking chops in Italy before the spot opened. So we go in expecting something a little different.
Well, “go in” is misleading. Due to COVID-19, Stellina has opened as a to-go only outfit, offering on-site pickup. On both visits, we go curbside, so we haven’t had a good look at the interior yet.
As for the food, we start with something familiar and, if we’re honest, hard to get wrong and hard to make amazing: sausage lasagna. This one comes full of noodles so soft we’d miss that they were there if we weren’t looking, layered with red sauce, hot Italian sausage crumbles and mounds of creamy ricotta. That red sauce, studded with cooked-tender onion, brings the acidity needed to cut quite a lot of fat, and the sausage lends a deep savoriness and subtle spice notes from red chiles and fennel, nothing mind-blowing but pure comfort and satisfying besides. We also try a rocket salad for a healthier addition, which sees arugula mixed with ultra-thin slices of zucchini, gorgonzola chunks, fresh black pepper and lemon vinaigrette, a combo that works for its freshness and the way the citrus, cheese funk and one-two peppery punch of greens and black pepper play together.
On the less familiar side of things, the rectangular potato pizza is a very Roman thing, here topped with slices of tuber, olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary, dead simple on crust made with house sourdough. It divides my dining companions; I dig the way the soft-centered potato slices play with the aromatic rosemary and the bite of strong black pepper, a clean and simple bite. They think it’s lacking in flavor. We agree it needs a skosh more olive oil and that the sourdough crust is crispy and light. The Polpetta pizza’s a hit all around, its meatball chunks wowing with faint spices and overwhelming savoriness — we’re glad Stellina sells ’em alone as an appetizer. With a tangy sauce and good cheese, it’s a standout favorite.
We skip a non-alcoholic lemon slushy for boozy beverages. A wine slush, made with a rotating blend selected by consulting bartender Erika Mullett, sips sweet and cool, a fine porch or patio choice. The Italian Old Fashioned bears notes of vanilla and fruity nuttiness reminiscent of stone fruit pits, thanks to the Tuaca liqueur at the base. And the strawberry Vesper, the punchiest of our drinks, adds strawberry-ginger gin and cucumber vodka to Lillet for a strong, floral sipper that has all the flavor but none of the acidity of the berries. We hope to see these drinks and dishes plated properly and served in the convivial context of a busy neighborhood café as soon as it’s safe to do so, but for now, Stellina has no problem making our dining rooms feel less oubliette and more trattoria.