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Saturday, May 09, 2015

Stella Barra Pizzeria [Meeting #115]

Stella Barra
1954 N. Halsted Street (Map)
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 634-4101

CPC invaded Stella Barra Pizzeria on Sunday, May 8, 2014. 

The Chicago Pizza Club lives! The Chicago Pizza Club will live forever! We met almost a year ago. This report was written in my head almost a year ago. I let it ferment. That made it better. You know what else gets better with fermentation? Pizza dough! But not a lot of places bother with that time-consuming step. Stella Barra does and the crust is delicious. We'll get to that. Here's the review:

We Chicagoans are justifiably proud of our pizza. Those of us who think our fair city and New York are the only two contenders for best pizza city in America the world are absolutely correct. However, just because a pizzeria is not in one of those two cities absolutely doesn't mean it isn't great. If Arizona's Pizzeria Bianco, Detroit's Loui's, New Haven's Sally's (and others), or any number of stellar pizzerias from across the country were to open an outpost in Chicago, there is simply no degree of regional chauvinism that would justify anything less than unbridled joy at the news.

That said, regional skepticism is certainly understandable when it comes to Stella Barra, a relatively unheralded (at least nationally) pizzeria opened by Chicago's own Lettuce Entertain You. For one thing, with the exception of Pizzeria Mozza, the words "LA" and "pizza," when used together, have long deserved derision. For another, while Lettuce is responsible for some great restaurants in Chicago, the empire's one foray into pizza, Frankie's 5th Floor Pizzeria, is decidedly mediocre.

Here's why you don't make assumptions about restaurants without trying them:

The 6 CPC members, 2 junior members, 2 fetuses, and one CPC guest who attended our meeting at Stella Barra were unanimously thrilled with the pizza. We made a serious dent in the menu. Given the number of pizzas, the time that has passed, the number of people who read the blog, and the value of my time, there's not going to be a detailed description of the pizza. But fear not, you'll get an overview and a lot of pictures worth somewhere between 800 and 1200 words apiece.

There are currently nine pizzas on the menu at Stella Barra. There were 10 when we went (lots of overlap with the current menu) and we tried nine of them. I should note there are technically well over 9 or 10 choices at Stella Barra because there's also the ability to customize any of the pizzas with various toppings and each pizza can be had on either their standard thin crust or their cracker thin crust. The pizzas on the menu range from simple ones like the Margherita (the only one we didn't get) to unique pies like the spinach and kale pizza with pecorino cheese and roasted garlic.

The default crust is fantastic. It's a great example of the crispy/chewy bakery quality bread that has come to embody higher end American pizza since Chris Bianco broke the mold in Arizona years ago. The chef/partner behind the pizza, Jeff Mahin, lets the dough rise for a day, beats it down, and then lets it rise again for another 12-plus hours. The result is a beautifully textured crust with a sourdough tang that I'd happily devour if it were presented sans toppings, sauce or cheese.

The extra thin version of the crust, called "Thin Sin" and referred to as Roman style, has the same flavor (but obviously less of it) and without the chewy part of the crispy/chewy. The Thin Sin will make anyone partial to old-school Chicago thin crust swoon with delight; it's a version up there with Vito & Nick's, Villa Nova, and Pat's.

Here's what we ate:

The butternut squash pizza, which is not on the current menu, has the obvious pieces of the namesake gourd as well as candied bits of bacon, tallegio cheese, fresno chilies, parmesan, parsley and oregano.

It was frigging delicious and if it doesn't come back on the menu when fall rolls around, then someone needs to be fired.

All vegetables was no problem even for the biggest meat lovers among us. The roasted spinach and purple kale were nicely salted and full of flavor that was only made better thanks to the addition of pecorino, cracked peppercorns, and garlic.

Chicago is a sausage town. Los Angeles is not a sausage town. Kale pizza from LA makes sense. Butternut squash pizza from LA makes sense. But can an LA pizzeria deliver sausage up to Chicago's standards? Yes it most definitely can. The chunks of housemade sausage use fennel pollen to get a flavor worthy of the mildly chewy texture. 

Another one not on the current menu. This is the Fennel Bianco. It had a lot of shaved fennel; some burrata; and rosemary, torn basil, and extra virgin olive oil. It was great.

The Prosciutto and Egg. It has prosciutto, it has egg, it has mozzarella, gruyere, and pecorino, it has some chili flakes and cracked black pepper. It was good. Not the best, but quite good.

That's the Rossa. At $13, it's the cheapest pizza on the menu. That's appropriate because it has no cheese. Cheese makes pizza better. That said, I liked this very simple pie topped with arugula, roasted garlic, calabrian chilies and sweet basil. I wouldn't recommend ordering it unless you're sharing a bunch of pizzas like we were. Or if you're lactose intolerant.

This Shaved Mushroom was one of our two "Thin Sin" pizzas. In addition to the funghi, this delightfully crispy pizza came with gruyère, melted onions, torn parsley, rosemary, thyme and a not-overwhelming amount of truffle flavor. This was a winner.

Four cheese is usually a dumb pizza to order but Stelios wanted this one so we got it. We ate every slice, though it was the last one we finished. If you like four cheese pizza, this is a great one to get. But if you like four cheese pizza, you should probably try other kinds of pizza. And if you like four cheese pizza, you might have to go somewhere other than Stella Barra because it's not on the menu any more.

The Hobbs Pepperoni pizza is a pepperoni pizza. It has sauce, mozzarella, a little parmesan, and, of course, pepperoni. Hobbs is a charcuterie company out there in Californ-I-A. The pepperoni was great. Obviously, this is a pretty basic pie. Basic can be great and this one was.

So there you have it, almost a year later, the Chicago Pizza Club has reemerged from its slumber. We'll try to stay awake.

Hooray for Pizza!