Don't Expect Italian Flags And Dean Martin Muzak
A recent rainy winter night found our party of four at Pizza La Stella, a new downtown pizza place in Raleigh, North Carolina. Searching for a dining spot convenient to the North Carolina Symphony concert we had just attended, La Stella's “authentic Neapolitan pizza” hook got my attention.
If you're looking for the comforting kitsch of a run-of-the-mill pizzeria, keep looking. You won't find it at La Stella. There is nothing here that says “Italian” except for the writing done in tile work on the pizza ovens. The place looks, acts, and feels more like a trendy downtown fast casual establishment. It's all barn wood, heavy wooden beams, and casual banquettes. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I've been to plenty of “Italian” restaurants where the décor was a lot better than the food. I'm just sayin' don't expect Italian flags on the walls and Dean Martin muzak in the background.
Upon entering, we ordered at the counter and were given the option of seating in the first floor dining area or upstairs in “The Loft,” La Stella's cocktail bar, billed as a “rustic retreat straight out of a forgotten era.” We opted for the dining room and were shown to a table where I could see one of the enormous custom made Stefano Ferrara wood-fired brick ovens at work. You can tell they are wood-fired as soon as you walk in; you'll probably leave smelling slightly smoky. The oven I could see was emblazoned with “fatta a mano.” The one I couldn't see said “con il cuore.” This is apparently the eatery's motto, even though when I questioned the server, she hadn't the slightest idea what the writing on the ovens said. I enlightened her and she got kind of an “ah-HAH” look on her face. Later I spied the English translation printed over a door. Now, I'm not suggesting that everybody in the place should speak fluent Italian, but surely somebody else must have noticed the writing on the ovens and asked about it. But I digress.
I had to have the Pizza Margherita. Made on a thin “doppio zero” crust with imported San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, and leaves of fresh basil, it is the definitive authentic Neapolitan pizza. All other pies are variations or imitations. You want a real pizza? The kind God orders? Gotta be a Margherita. My dinner companions, however, are carnivores, so they had to have something with meat. They ordered the Carnoso, a concoction of San Marzano tomatoes, Fontina cheese, soppressata, Italian sausage, and guanciale.
I was delighted with my choice. The flavors were wonderful and the ratios were perfect. The crust had a delectable char. My only complaint was that it was a tad floppy. It could have been a little crisper to stand up to the toppings. If I were a New Yorker who liked to fold my slice in half and stuff it in my face, it would have been perfect. However, I prefer the more Italian style of using a knife and fork to start with and then finishing the slice by picking it up and eating the area around the cornicione. This otherwise perfectly thin crust was so.....I don't want to say “soggy,” but......a knife and fork were nearly impossible and even just lifting it and eating it from the pointy end was tricky without wearing the toppings on my shirt. New York style was about all you could do with it. Not really my thing. That said, overall it was a delicious offering to which I ultimately did some serious damage. Even if I did have to take a ribbing from my friend for abandoning my utensils.
My wife had a slice of the Margherita, which she also pronounced as wonderful, but her main focus was on her generous Caprese salad; light and fresh and drizzled with a tart-sweet balsamic vinegar. It was also big enough to share.
Our friends were not quite as impressed with their fare. I suppose when you're accustomed to “regular” pizza with mozzarella and pepperoni, Fontina and soppressata may be acquired tastes. Their chief grievance was that the “bacon” overpowered everything else. Again, guanciale is a highly flavorful cut of “bacon,” made from the cheeks of the animal, and its strong flavor takes some getting used to. It couldn't have been too objectionable, though; I noticed there were no leftovers.
Service was a little odd. The Margherita came to the table in minutes, followed fairly quickly by the salad. My friends were left sitting and watching as my wife and I somewhat reluctantly chowed down. Not wanting to be rude, we offered them portions of salad and slices of our pizza because theirs was so slow in arriving. We were nearly finished with our pizza before their pizza came out, and that only happened after I got a server's attention and asked about it. My wife sampled a bit of their pie and her sensitive palate detected what she perceived as a slight difference in the tomatoes used in the two sauces. When I asked our server if different sauces or different tomatoes were used in the preparation, she obviously didn't have a clue. But give her points for faking a good answer. Note to management: menu training?
Pizza La Stella has a varied menu that includes both red sauce pies and a selection of white pizzas. (There's actually no such word as “pizzas”; the proper Italian is pizze, but I've long since given up on that lost cause.) Besides the aforementioned Margherita and Carnoso, they also have a Bolognese and a vegetarian offering called “The Shroomer,” among other specialties. The “Pollo Sporco,” a rosemary, Peppadew peppers, apple cider chicken, red onion, and garlic confit pizza, had me wondering. The name means “Dirty Chicken.” And, naturally, being in the middle of North Carolina, there has to be a “Carolina Classic,” a pizza consisting of Carolina pulled pork, red onion, pancetta, and La Stella slaw. Of course, they have “classic” cheese, pepperoni, and pepperoni and sausage pizza as well. There's a nice variety of antipasti, including fire-roasted Brussels sprouts, to start off with. Lots of salads in addition to the Caprese, including the option to “craft your salad” from an impressive list of toppings and dressings. The menu also features wood-fired wings, calzone and stromboli, and some tempting desserts.
The prices at Pizza La Stella are reasonable considering what you're getting. Can you get a pizza for eight bucks somewhere else? Sure, but not one with mozzarella di bufala on it, capisci? I'm not gonna kick about $15 for what I got. Ten bucks for a salad was okay because it fed the whole table. Some of the other salads were cheaper and some of the other pizzas – like the Carnoso – were more expensive. You can eat for less at Pizza Hut, but.......you get what you pay for.
Pizza La Stella is located at 219 Fayetteville Street in the heart of downtown Raleigh. I understand there has been a fairly high restaurant turnover at the location. Maybe this one will work. They don't accept individual reservations, but large groups can be accommodated with advance notice. Parking is....well, it's downtown, folks. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to midnight on Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, call them at 984-200-2441 or look them up on the Web at pizzalastella.com.
La Stella is Italian for “the star.” A lot of things have changed since my last visit to Raleigh in 1978. With “stars” like this one on the scene, I'll definitely go back more often.