Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pizza by Stella Rossa

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the pizza joint Stella Rossa.

Pizza by Stella Rossa:

Ingredients that Dance Together

I’m not a fan of Molecular Gastronomy.   Truthfully I think it’s overrated (especially the foam… I really don’t need to eat my carrots or anything else that way… not that you actually feel like you’re eating anything when it comes in foam form).   That being said I appreciate what Molecular Gastronomy can teach about food: especially how important every single element is that is added to a dish.  Which makes me a fan of those who have studied the art of food chemistry and then returned to the real world of food (at the risk of sounding pretentious I’m gonna pull out my philosophy degree would say it recalls Plato’s Cave, learning some bright new concepts and then bringing them back to us normal folks still in the cave…. okay it’s totally pretentious, but it’s also true).  Which leads us to Stella Rossa Pizza Bar, the new bar that opened on Santa Monica’s Main Street a couple of months ago.  

“It seems like a hangout on a TV show,” noted my dinner companion (that’s to be taken as a super high compliment).  Stella Rossa’s got that casual vibe.  There’s no staff uniform; other than servers required to don a bit of white on top and the bartenders needing to dress in all black everyone wears what they want.  The night we were there most everyone was wearing skirts with Chucks.  A thirty something birthday party was being celebrated next to us, the type of birthday party you’d want to go to comfy and chill. 

And let’s call it out right away.   With the words upscale pizza we need to note that Stella Rossa is not Pizzeria Mozza.  But it’s not supposed to be.   It’s simpler, more casual (there’s no twenty four dollar pizzas), and there’s no ridiculous wait to get a reservation (they don’t even take them).  

And in some ways that makes Stella Rossa cleaner restaurant (a reference to form, not their tidiness skills).    Stella Rossa pretty much just makes pizzas (they have some Salads and Starters (referred to as “For the Table” on the menu) but it’s that and Pizza (nary a Primi or Secondi on the menu).   Which means as a restaurant, you better really rock what you do make.  

These dishes have some of the cleanest flavor profiles you’ll ever taste because it’s only the necessary ingredients and nothing else.  Nothing is wasted.  “There is something very intriguing about taking such a simple food and applying the same philosophy and attention that the top kitchens in the world put to their most intricate dishes. We are setting out to create the very best pizza we possibly can,” said Jeff Mahin, Executive Chef and Partner of Stella Rossa.

At just 27 years old, Mahin has worked at some of the world’s most respected restaurants including Arzak in Spain and Nobu in the U.S. If you ask him, Mahin might actually liken himself to more of a “food scientist.”  The oldest son of a scientist and an engineer, Mahin spent much of his teen years using his natural talent and instinct to construct and deconstruct whatever foods he touched within his family’s modest kitchen in Northern California.  

In 2006, Mahin tested fate when he applied to The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, England (voted the Best Restaurant in the World 2005 by Restaurant Magazine and the Michelin Restaurant of the Year 2001) on a whim.  As a laboratory assistant in Chef/Owner Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen, Mahin spent months on end creating and recreating a number of well known dishes (including pizza) as part of the BBC’s “In Search of Perfection” documentary (which aired stateside on Planet Green).

“The food has the feel of European cooking,” noted my dinner guest, which having just gotten back from living in Europe for a year is a total high compliment.  “Not that heavy feel, but the freshness of the food.   That it feels like it was just bought at the market today.”  We started with the Burrata.   Topped with organic extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt, it was the expected creaminess (and also local).   But the showstopper of this dish was the accoutrements: fresh grapes perfectly charred, infusing them with a delicious smoky flavor, that is then topped with a tangy balsamic vinegar.

Along with the Burrata we sampled the Mizuna and Baby Mache Salad.  “This is the perfect summer salad, very crisp and clean,” noted my dining partner.   Mizuna has been called the Japanese Arugula, but is delightfully softer lacking that sometimes overly harsh bite.  Tossed with toasted sunflower seeds and Parmigianino Reggiano, a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice pull it all together.       

And then there’s the Pizza.   This section of the menu offers up a seasonal variety of 12-13-inch artisan-style pizzas showcasing sustainable, locally grown ingredients found at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.  Separated into Red and White both are composed of Mahin’s signature pizza crust. 

Made from four simple ingredients: locally milled flour, filtered water, sea salt and fresh yeast that is fermented for at least 18 hours.  The end result is a hybrid of a thin golden crispy crust and the necessary (for me at least) chewy center. To achieve Stella Rossa’s signature crisp crust (which is derived from a stacked oven that hits a temperature of 650 degrees Fahrenheit and BTW is totally necessary if you want crispy pizza which is why you’ll never get that perfect crunch making a pizza at home with an oven that never gets above 450 degrees).  For those looking for something thinner, Stella Rossa offers Thin Sin, a super thin, extra-light pizza crust that is offered in some of the menu’s selections.   

The restaurant’s culinary team spent countless months (and more than 30 variations) perfecting its signature pizzas.  From the Red we sampled the Fresh Tomato: Heirloom Tomato, Fresh Mozzarella, Sweet Basil, and the Housemade Organic Italian Sausage composed of Tomato, Fresh Mozzarella, Hand-Picked Oregano, and Fennel Pollen.  With both the flavors blended perfectly clean.   “It tastes like Rome,” noted my dinner guest.  “The sausage tastes like it walked here from Italy.”   

From the White it was Shaved Mushroom composed of Gruyere, Melted Onions, Black Truffle, Torn Parsley, Rosemary, and Thyme, and the Asparagus and Prosciutto composed of La Quercia Prosciutto Rossa, Parmigianino Reggiano, Red Onion, and Organic Virgin Olive Oil.  Both tasted as good as the ingredients make them sound with the perfect balance of crust to cheese to toppings ratio.  “They do a good job of complimenting flavors with few ingredients,” noted my dinner guest, “of getting them to dance together perfectly.”

Which in the end is a trademark of a really good chef.   It’s common knowledge in the cooking world that anyone can make a good dish with twelve ingredients (at least one of the other ingredients will be there to mask most any mistake you make) but a truly good chef will make a great dish with five or less ingredients.

For this type of cooking to work it requires quality of ingredients.   As much as the modern day farms would love for it not to be the case, you can taste the difference between a Farmer’s Market Heirloom Tomato grown outside with sun and soil and something hydroponically grown (and FYI, because it seems we as a culture have totally forgotten this, tomatoes have a season (which is summer) so don’t expect anything close to decent in the winter.   That’s just the way it is, respect Mother Nature.)

Stella Ross isn’t big, 50 seat dining seats and another 15 at the bar (which is why it’s doing a great takeout business at the moment) but it’s worth the wait to get a taste at ingredients that dance.   

Kat Thomas is a food writer in Santa Monica.   You can check out more of her articles at edibelskinny.com