For the past few years, a number of pizza restaurants have opened their doors offering a plethora of pies with classic and unusual ingredients. Nothing can top Pizzeria Vetri when it comes to that crisp, slightly blistered crust and marvelous toppings. But I also like SliCE, Pizzeria Pesto and Zavona Wine Bar Pizzeria.
If you are looking for a moderately priced Italian restaurant that welcomes families, Stella Rossa is for you. Located at 10th and Walnut, it is a fine spot for a lunchtime pizza or sandwich, as well as dinner before the theater. On the night we dined, a number of families were off to see “Elf.”
The menu offers no surprises, as one can build a meat, cheese and olive board, munch on a salad or tuck into pasta or pizza. Several entrees are on order as well.
Stella Rossa was packed when Edward and I arrived early on a recent Saturday evening. There was a 30-minute wait, so we decided to dine at one of the bi-level restaurant’s two bars. The cozy, warm atmosphere featured brick walls with soft lighting and music. The staff was friendly and professional, even when service was at a high pace. I sipped a Negroni ($9)while Edward enjoyed a Bombay Sapphire martini ($9.75). A bartender brought us small square rolls made with pizza dough and a spicy olive oil to keep us happy.
I am still dreaming abut the arancini ($8). These fried risotto balls can be difficult to prepare because arborio rice has a tendency be fickle when it is first toasted and laced with stock. Four of them arrived piping hot, and were stuffed with provolone that oozed creaminess as soon as I took my first bite. The rice also imparted a creamy texture. I also liked the seasoned breadcrumbs that coated the appetizer. We dipped them into a fresh marinara fragrant with chopped basil.
Fried calamari has become so ubiquitous, I often hesitate to order it. I don’t like frozen rings of squid that taste like rubber bands. Stella Rossa’s version ($11) was nicely done. Whole baby squid along with rings were coated in a light crumb and gently fried to a golden brown. The coating never fell off the calamari. Sliced banana peppers were included for a bit of punch, and the roasted garlic aioli and spicy marinara dipping sauces were a fine idea.
Besides pizza, meatballs also are close to my heart. A number of restaurants make them pretty well, a number can be tasteless and gummy. Stella Rossa offers them prepared with either beef or veal or vegetarian. We chose beef meatballs ($9), and they quickly brought a smile to my face. The beef was beautifully seasoned. They were braised, browned and served in a soup bowl filled with fresh marinara and topped with grated shreds of Parmesan. The crisp crostini were perfect for dipping, but I liked the small dish of fresh ricotta that I schmeered on the bread. Three good-sized meatballs came with the order.
Now to the pizza. The dough is made at the restaurant. The red or white pies, which are baked in a wood-burning oven, can be ordered with a variety of toppings.
We selected the mushroom pizza ($12) topped with Taleggio, one of my favorite cheeses which is sometimes called the Brie of Italy. It melted beautifully on the pie and was topped with sliced cremini mushrooms and a hint of truffle oil. These mushrooms imparted a heady woody flavor and aroma that blended nicely with the mild cheese. I thought the pizza could have been crisper.
Stella Rossa offers wine by the four -ounce glass, seven-ounce glass, half-carafe or bottle. I like this wine service because it affords guests to sip a glass or two of different wines with their meal. We chose a half-carafe of Montepulciano ($17) that was just OK. It had the texture of cough syrup.
With all the upscale fine dining restaurants that dot Center City, Stella Rossa found its niche. I watched a family of five that sat near us eat a meal that did not break the bank. And the smile on a little boy’s face as he ate spaghetti and meatballs was priceless.
Three tips of the toque to Stella Rossa.
929 Walnut St.
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