It seems like Lettuce Entertain You - a restaurant group managing 80+ restaurants worldwide - has been following me wherever I go. In operation since 1971, the group is responsible for a number of chain restaurants like Maggiano's, Big Bowl and Wildfire and in Chicago, the group boasts some of the city's top restaurants, like Everest, L20 and Tru.
It was at a meal at their Cafe Ba Ba Reeba in Chicago freshly after graduating college and moving to the big city that I discovered there was more to food then just meat and potatoes. It was here, while sharing small plates of tapas, that my eyes were opened to the benefits of expanding my once limited palate. I've since become a far more adventurous eater and that meal was like losing my virginity. My final meal as a Chicago resident would also be at Cafe Ba Ba Reeba - a meal for myself and twelve friends that would end up being entirely comped simply due to a very reasonable delay in meeting our reservation. I couldn't show you a greater instance of exemplary customer service that I've ever experienced if I tried.
The same week that I had moved to Northern Virginia, the group's French restaurant Mon Ami Gabi popped up across the street from my work. Were they following me?
Two years later when I finally arrived in Los Angeles, LEYE was not far behind. Stella Rossa opened this spring in Santa Monica, next door to the group's only other California location, M Street Kitchen. In the few months they've been open, the pizza bar has already managed to turn a number of heads. So much so, that when we were invited to come in, we were eager (though a little skeptical) to head over to Santa Monica with TreasureLA and SavoryHunter to check things out for ourselves.
The man behind the concept is Chef Jeff Mahin. At only 27 years old, he may be a relative pup in chef years, but he boasts a prodigious resume that includes Nobu, L20, Arzak and The Fat Duck (for those at home counting Michelin stars, you've now run out of fingers). Mahin and his team work behind a wall of jars containing the special dough made using flour milled from San Joaguin Valley wheat, filtered water, sea salt and fresh yeast. Simplicity is king - as seems to be a theme working through the entire menu - but Chef Mahin seems to be seeking to perfect simplicity.
As we enter the restaurant to the strains of what sounds like '90s hip hop, we take a moment to appreciate the vibe. With its large, central bar, open kitchen, industrial-chic decor, wine bottle-lined walls, and friendly young staff, Stella Rossa manages to be both trendy and welcoming. In addtion to the not insubstantial number of wines available by the bottle, Stella Rossa also offers a small selection of craft beers and cocktails.
Our primary focus tonight is the pizza, but a few appetizer items catch our interest. First up, we're served thinly sliced prosciutto rossa (below) alongside house-made bread. There are no bells and whistles here, but who wants pesky bells or whistles when you have quality prosciutto from La Quercia? The most intricate component of the dish is a light salad of celery and greens for cleansing our palette.
Nor is there anything fancy about our next shared starter. A soft and creamy ball of locally made DiStefano burrata (below) is waiting for us in a pool of olive oil. Mahin allows the simplicity of fresh ingredients - mostly plucked from the stands of the Santa Monica Farmer's Market up the road - to do the talking. The combination of roasted grapes, wild greens and house-made bread seem so obvious once we put it all together, but most of us are left mumbling 'why didn't I think of that?' as we swooped for seconds and thirds.
We certainly weren't expecting the beet carpaccio (below) to nearly steal the show. The golden and red beets are oven-roasted to subtlely sweet perfection. Burrata makes another appearance, this time alongside aged balsamic, wild arugula and toasted pistachios, and the combination of creaminess, acidity, and nuttiness makes us smile.
That's when the pizzas start arriving. Readers of the blog may be aware that I'm a big advocate of Neapolitan pizza. There's something about a food so steeped in the ritual of a regiment as rigid as the Neapolitan pie. Every bite is a reflection on hundreds of years of culinary history and a meticulous set of standards sacred enough for the Italian government to deem worthy of protection. Now, what you'll find at Stella Rossa is not authentic Neapolitan pizza. But you will get the sense that Mahin's crust is the result of extensive rounds of research & development - and passion - that even the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana could appreciate. Chef Mahin's signature creations aren't quite like any we've had before. Mahin's crusts may be very thin but are still chewy, substantial, and have a great flavor all their own.
The mozzarella on the Margherita (below) may not be our favorite, but we overlook it to enjoy that delicious crust and the tangy tomato sauce. To balance out the thin interior, the edge of the crust is considerably bulkier; it makes for the best of both worlds.
The meat on the house-made organic Italian sausage pie (below) fights to wreste our attention away from the crust with a heat-assist from Calabria chilies (the genius suggestion of our server). The salty, flavorful bits of sausage make this pie a heartier selection.
The shaved mushroom white pizza (below) may very well be the pinnacle of our meal. For a moment my focus wavers from the crust to the phenomenal toppings - shaved truffles, gruyere, melted onions, and a bouquet of herbs - lingering on my nose and tongue. A mushroom pizza - a white mushroom pizza, no less - simply has no business being as good as this is. Our favorite slice of the night.
Our final pizza is a special that evening, combining butternut squash with Taleggio cheese, sweet basil and applewood-smoked bacon (below). The salty bacon helps balance out the sweetness of the squash. These ingredients also make this a heftier pie than our previous selections, and in the ultimate testament to the density of the crust, it doesn't sag beneath the strain. Though it may be thin, the crust is just sturdy enough to carry the burden of its ingredients from plate to mouth without collapsing en route in a landslide of toppings.
For dessert we share a few things. First thing is a salted caramel pot de creme (below, left). I love a good pot de creme, and Stella Rossa's is no exception. The caramel is dense and rich; a few sweet bites go along way. We also snack on a chocolate chunk cookie with sea salt (below, right) from the adjoining cafe next door. I love that there was no holding back with the sea salt. As is the case with both of our selections, a dash of sea salt makes for the best desserts.
When we moved here just over a year ago, I declared Los Angeles a pizza wasteland. Since then, it seems we've had a steady stream of options opening every month. Mozza had already led the charge, but soon we were seeing Olio, The Luggage Room, Sotto, Mother Dough, Urbano, Settebello... Is Stella Rossa the king of them all? Only time will tell. Right now I'd be hard-pressed to point to a local slice I've enjoyed more. Regardless, I think it's safe to say that Stella Rossa is a great addition to the stable of LEYE restaurants and no doubt your best bet for pizza on the westside.
*Disclosure: This was a hosted meal.