Walking into Stella is like opening a time capsule. The white-on-white decor of opening day remains. The menu has barely changed. And some of the same customers seem to have been sitting at the bar the whole time. If they have aged as well as the restaurant, they are lucky.
When it opened, this was the South End’s hottest spot. For months, it was nearly impossible to get a table. “SoWa” was catching on, but many still considered anything south of Tremont to be the edge of the civilized world. Chef-owner Evan Deluty was the proud father of a newborn girl, after whom he named his new Italian restaurant. Chef Joe Cassinelli was in the kitchen. Baby Stella is now 10, Cassinelli has his own restaurant group (Posto, Painted Burro, et al.), and the edge of the civilized world is colonized by a Whole Foods with an in-house spa.
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Change is good. And since Stella opened, the city’s ideas about food have changed immensely. The concept of “farm to table” dining came to prominence, then prevailed, to the point where we rarely see the twee term anymore. Plates have become more artful and smaller. The standard protein-plus-starch-plus-vegetable entree is no longer a given. Chefs want to transmogrify an ingredient or present it pure.
Sometimes it’s nice to just eat food.
Stella’s menu, overseen by chef Mario Rivera, isn’t particularly concerned with what grows where when. It doesn’t try to be clever. It doesn’t fetishize kale or treat carrots like false gods. It is concerned with serving nice-looking, tasty things to people out for a fun night with friends. This is the meat and potatoes of the restaurant experience, even if Stella rarely serves meat and potatoes.
1525 Washington St.,
South End, Boston
It does serve crisp, fried snacks that go down well with a drink. Artichoke hearts are light, golden nuggets that pair perfectly with mustard remoulade, creamy with just enough bite. It is dangerously easy to nibble your way through a platter with a friend; they are gone before you know it. Crunch into Parmesan arancini and find creamy grains of rice and a melted mozzarella center. The tomato sauce they are served with is fresh and bright and vaguely spicy. The only thing wrong here is that the dish needs more of it.
The same goes for mussels, which are removed from their shells and served nude in a saffron cream sauce piled with roasted red peppers. The peppers speak louder than the other, subtler flavors; less of them and a more generous pour of the rich sauce would make for better balance.
(It always seems indecent to me to serve mussels without shells. Also like cheating. It offers a reduced experience. Half the pleasure of eating mussels derives from prying them forth, no? Mussels without shells are like wall-to-wall carpet instead of hardwood floors, downloads instead of vinyl, brand-new condo complexes. Where is the interest? But I’m not on a first date.)
Nothing could be simpler than a big pile of arugula with Parmesan and lemon vinaigrette. The generosity of the portion and the clean flavors make this salad a pleasure. Do you want pepper on it? Stella is the kind of restaurant where a guy comes around with a mill and offers, regardless what you’ve ordered, before you’ve tasted it. Sure you want pepper on it. Why not?
Sean Proctor/Globe Staff
Grilled pizza with sausage, broccoli rabe, tomato, and pepperoncini.
Grilled pizza has become such a thing, when it’s offered on a menu the eyes glaze over. So often the crust is a little tough, or too thick, or overly topped, or just not quite right. But it’s great here: thin and crisp, but just chewy enough. It holds one’s attention topped with sausage, broccoli rabe, tomato, and pepperoncini. As with the artichoke hearts, you can suddenly find you’ve eaten the whole thing. The flavors and textures are just satisfying. Those artichokes, that salad, this pizza, a glass of wine: That’s dinner, and why Stella has regulars.
Sean Proctor/Globe Staff
Bolognese served over tagliatelle.
The Bolognese is another reason. It’s served over tagliatelle, although Deluty tells me by phone they are changing it up here and there with other kinds of pasta. At Stella, that’s experimentation. The meat sauce is intensely rich and very delicious, the flavor deepened with liver, the not-so-secret ingredient. It’s wonderful, and too rich for me, but I get it. More in my wheelhouse: linguine with asparagus cream and poached egg, scented with truffle. It’s rich, too, but the clear, out-of-season spring flavor of the asparagus tempers the cream. It’s elegant comfort food. You could woo someone with this dish if you learned to make it yourself.
Stella’s gnocchi are light, the potato dumplings flecked with herbs, in a simple tomato sauce with fine threads of basil and cheese. It’s far too salty, which takes me back to an earlier era at Stella, when the food sometimes contained so much salt I couldn’t fit my swollen feet into my boots the next morning. That doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore.
Short ribs make a rich winter dish over pappardelle with Parmesan cream and chive oil, although there are more fatty bites than one expects after a long braise. Pork Milanese is a dud — a dry, flavorless, tough expanse of breaded meat topped with tomato and mozzarella. But swordfish “Siciliano” is lovely, the fish moist and flavorful, in a light, tangy sauce inflected with herbs and spiked with capers. On the side: simple roasted potatoes done right, the skins taut from the heat, the interiors fully cooked. It’s a little thing, but restaurant roasted potatoes are rarely as satisfying as the ones prepared at home.
Sean Proctor/Globe Staff
Swordfish “Siciliano” with capers, roasted potato, and asparagus.
Stella’s desserts have never been a strength, and that, too, hasn’t changed. One night pecan pie tastes nuked and fizzy; another night it’s better. Tiramisu tastes booze-less; cannoli filling is grainy. Gelato comes in chocolate or vanilla, and they don’t make that or the sorbet in house.
Cocktails are solid enough. Even when they get fancy, they still feel like drinks, not bartender self-expression. There’s a regular wine list and a higher-end wine list (“Stella’s cella”), both also solid, covering the bases rather than showcasing an individual’s vision. Brunch is still a big draw for the restaurant. Even Stella’s website is as bad as it ever was. Leave everything else alone, but please, update this.
Stella is no longer the South End’s hottest spot. That kind of cachet can’t carry a place for a decade. It has grown into something better: a mainstay of the neighborhood. Deluty is currently working on reopening Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, the South End institution that closed last year. He seems a fine fit for the job.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★ Excellent | ★★ Good
★ Fair | (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.