A big thanks to Slice reader Lance Roberts for getting the intel on Stella Rossa and sending it our way!
Stella Rossa Pizza Bar
2000 Main St., Santa Monica CA 90405 (map); 310-396-9250; stellarossapizzabar.com
Pizza style: Thin-crust with a big back-end
Oven type: Baker's Pride gas oven
The skinny: Pizza Bar with an emphasis on the pizza and local ingredients. Come for the crust, stay for the crust.
Price: Bloomsdale Spinach, $13.95; Coppa & Smoked Mozzarella, $15.95; Housemade Organic Italian Sausage, $14.95
It's sort of odd that just as the wood-fired Neapolitan craze is hitting finally Los Angeles, it's the Baker's Pride gas oven in Stella Rossa that's getting most of the hype (see: The Huffington Post). Gas ovens are great workhorses for Mom and Pop shops, but any time you see them producing something special, you can be pretty sure that the person behind the dough is a real baker. Chef/Co-Owner Jeff Mahin, a veteran of the molecular gastronomy hotspot The Fat Duck in London, looks to be such a person.
Nestled on the sleepy south side of Santa Monica, Stella Rossa advertises itself as a "pizza bar" (cleverly designed to appeal to my two biggest weaknesses no doubt) and it delivers on both fronts. On the bar side, there's a 50-bottle wine list, along with a nice selection of reds and whites by the glass. Beer fans can choose between 18 brews, many of them local, and if all else fails there's a full bar dominating the center of the room. Everyone's focus, however, seems to be on that "other thing." And just in case you forget what is is, the dough rising in deli cups on the counter (a la J. Kenji Lopez-Alt style?) might jog your memory.
It's pizza. And at Stella, it's more basic and primal than that—it's the crust. On first glance, it's a bulging, bulbous ring that looks a little overwhelming and feels a tad too stiff. Those fears disappear once you bite in and realize there's only a thin but hearty layer of crunch between you and the slightly moist, chewy, incredibly flavorful interior. It's definitely a "bready" crust, but nobody's going to fight about whether it's really pizza or not, the same way they do at Pizzeria Mozza. And very few are are going to argue that it isn't good —if not great.
The guiding principle of Stella's menu is using local, fresh and seasonal ingredients and that's highlighted by the gold medal winner of the pizza menu, The Bloomsdale Spinach (purple kale, pepper, young Pecorino, and olive oil). Buttery, oily and blessed with the two-fisted textural pop of crispy kale on a crunchy crust, it's the most complete and unique of the nine pies offered. But not everyone wants kale with their Old Rasputin, so Stella Rossa brings the meat, too.
Chunks of glistening Italian ham meld with the cheese on the Coppa & Smoked Mozzarella and make something that looked and tasted a hell of a lot like a sweet bacon.
In fact, I defy you to tell me it's not bacon... even though it isn't. The Hobbs pepperoni is just as impressive. It's smoky, slightly spicy, and above all, meaty. We made the mistake of ordering the pepperoni on a pie with heirloom tomatoes and the pep obliterated any hint of heirloom on the pie. I guess that's what you get for not leaving the flavor combinations up to the chef, but considering I was stuck with one of the more flavorful pepperonis I've ever tasted, I won't complain.
If Stella Rossa falters a little, it's in the tomato. The sauce is bright and clean when you taste it by itself, but it often disappears on the pizza, becoming wispy and leaving some of the pies a little dry. That's more of an issue when you're in Margherita-land though, and most of the pizzas have enough going on to make the sauce an afterthought. The other disappointment was the one pie that had me salivating the most: Housemade Organic Italian Sausage. Wow, even typing that makes me hungry. But the crumbled sausage was bland and it didn't complement the sauce or cheese in any way. There is some fennel pollen sprinkled on that particular pizza, but I think the fennel would have been far better served being mixed in with the pork.
For anyone concerned that the large ring of crust is going to end up pressing against your belt, Stella also has a thin crust named Thin Sin. The cracker-y base (made from half a serving of the regular dough) might be a desirable choice in yoga-centric Santa Monica, and it allows you to get a better sense of that delicate tomato sauce, but most Slice readers should and would opt for the regular crust; that's where the magic happens.
Hours removed from my visit, I'm still asking myself one question: Why would I ever go to a regular bar again when I could go to one that serves great pizza? Stella is smartly filling a void in Los Angeles: the sweet spot between neighborhood slice joints and upscale dining. As someone who's been focused solely on Neapolitan pies and waiting for some Bianco-like demigod to touch down in L.A., Stella Rossa is a a great reminder that not only is there room for all kinds of pizza, there's a real need for it.