Stella Rossa, Santa Monica: Michelin Powered Pizza
Forewarning: yes, this is crafty corporate concept pizza. It’s not as glaring of an oxymoron when the corporation in question is Lettuce Entertain You, aka, LEYE. In addition to operating such monstrosities as Big Bowl, and Ben Pao — ex-Chicagoans currently trying to “Escape from LA” can cringe… now — LEYE also operates Everest and L2O. Everest was just listed as the 10th most expensive restaurant in the US, and L2O received 3 whopping Michelins this year. Between Everest and L2O, LEYE claims four stars. What does this have to do with Sella Rossa? LEYE owns Stella Rossa, Stella’s Executive Chef Jeff Mahin and sous Patrick Costa are both from L2O.
While there are 2 Ex-Chicagoans helming this “pizza bar”, do not expect Chicago pie shenanigans. I despise deep dish, I hate almost everything from Gino’s East/Lou Malnati’s and Pizzeria Uno/Dos/Tres/etc. After chatting with chef Mahin, it is clear he wants the pies to transcend categories, to serve a higher purpose, if you well. If Alice Waters moved to SoCal and had to make pizza, without her favorite wood burning oven, Stella Rossa’s deck oven baked pie might be something she’d produce. SM’s pie skips the Caputo 00 but uses sea salt, filtered water, live yeast, and Santa Monica farmers market sourced ingredients, natch. The result, born from months of scientific — Chef Mahin has a math degree from Cal — dough and yeast testing, is unnervingly good.
Serious Eats did a nice blurb in July (shortly after my visit) and aptly covers the most important points of Stella Rossa. What it didn’t do, was provide insight into Chef Mahin’s philosophy. This is a corporate chef who left his post to sling pie in a far away land. His sous chef, wearing a 3 Michelin star tattoo on his left bicep, migrated to LA also to sling pie. When asked how he dealt with transition, Mahin stated plainly: cooking is cooking. His team’s simply trying to consistently produce the best product possible, given the resources and parameters. He’s not about the wood-burning oven, nor the coal fired pizza. Much like Olio’s Bradford Kent, for this pizzaiolo, the pie is but another rounded dough capable of serving as a vehicle for other bounties of the land, for other genres of cooking above and beyond firing pizza.
While the star-studded Santa Monica Main Street crowd may clamor for any edible pie, the calculated artistry behind the polished FOH seems to go mostly unrecognized. To demonstrate: the DiStefano burrata is paired with roasted grapes and treads in a wading pool of sharp olive oil. Beyond Lou’s fantastic stone fruit burrata plate, this may be the finest burrata prep despite of Nancy Silverton’s storied dominance over LA’s creamy cheese scene. Grapes are in seasonal abundance right now, and here, they’re charred just right. This plate’s so stupidly simple (surely beneath a math whiz?) but still outshines the typical arugula/pesto/balsamic/salame burrata prep. How many pizza bars employ mizuna greens in their house salads? Not sure, but the mizuna and mache was a peppery, sparingly dressed plate of chlorophyll goodness. Elsewhere in the restaurant, there is house made chili oil (on request, it’s not SYSCO chili flakes afterall), there is a burgeoning charcuterie program (the built-in charcuterie chamber is currently stuffed with cured meats from Hobb’s, La Quercia and their own italian sausages), and there is flour milled from San Joaquin Valley wheat.
Stella Rossa’s pie, a bastard child of Neapolitan and NYC style, birthed from maxed out 650 degree Baker’s Pride deck ovens, is a bona-fide pizza. Mozza’s pizza is artsy bread topped with fun stuff; a New Yorker will probably not cringe at the sight of a pie served here. In fact, after a precursory glance, this Westside pizza is akin to the foldable slice from any New York order-by-slice joint. Neapolitan lovers may protest the lack of leopard spotting on top and spotted charring on bottom, but the chef points to the heating consistency offered by the prosaic gas powered ovens. Hardliners will proclaim the rotund crust ring too dense, but it offers fantastic chew with a slight sourness from the live yeasts. The center crust is thin, but is able to support the heftiest of toppings while offering a delicate strata of bread just above the millimeter of crunchiness. Despite the sweet and exotic Calabrian chilies, the Italian sausage pizza is far more comforting, familiar, and tasty than anything from Mozza.
Despite all the methodical chefery, this man with a B.S. degree, hustling a B.A. job, is clearly whimsical. After chatting about the best of Chicago bites, Chef Mahin rushed to the pantry & returned with a bottle of Dalanti hot giardiniera. Perhaps it was the chili oil, perhaps it was too much Allagash White, but this regional gift brought on a deluge of emotions. Memories of fighting for parking on Grand just to grub over-rated sandwiches at Bari Foods, of that predictable stop over at Potbelly’s on Cicero right before the dreaded cow pen flight on Southwest headed to LA, of the fantastic Johnnie’s Italian beef & sausage combo sandwich soaked with hot giardiniera, all rushed by. This bottle is symbolic of the best, and worst, of Chicago.
Stella Rossa Pizza Bar
2000 Main St.
Santa Monica, CA 90405
** A shout-out to Ralph Wiggum