The owners of Raleigh’s Pizza La Stella recently announced that they would take over the renovated space that recently housed Hillsborough Street’s H Street Kitchen and would turn it into a wood-fired restaurant concept. The announcement made me realize that I hadn’t paid Pizza La Stella’s downtown Raleigh location on Fayetteville Street a visit since its debut late last year.
Fast forward to a Friday night, with my husband and two other friends in tow, as we enter the casual Neapolitan pizza shop to a downstairs open dining room with a sizable crowd dispersed amongst a smattering of tables. Stripped are the chic vestiges of Bolt Bistro and The Mint, two upscale restaurant concepts that previously occupied the same space, replaced by shiplap walls, ambient music, veneer wood tables lit overhead with industrial modern lighting.
We snake through large parties of tables, bypass the open kitchen and make our way upstairs to a dimly-lit area named “The Loft” to seat ourselves at a table close to the bar. We study the menu in the din confines of the loft, where the décor, oddly strewn with macabre taxidermy and a mosaic wall of black-and-white picture frames near the restrooms, can only be described as “rustic cabin in the woods meets Z-Gallerie”.
A bartender bumbles his way over from behind the bar and takes our order—twice—because he forgets what we initially order. Unfortunately, the unwieldy and neglectful service is a precursor to the rest of the night, perhaps the downside of venturing up to the more secluded second loft level and perhaps because the restaurant is only full-service for dinner. Every request, including extra napkins and drink refills, all require cumbersome prompts.
The fire-roasted Brussels sprouts sound enticing enough, but are hardly worth the $8 price tag. The nice cast iron presentation overshadows the actual flavor derived from the salt, pepper, romano cheese and rosemary honey that coat the Brussels sprouts, which have been charred to a smoky charcoal color. The De La Casa wood-fired chicken wings suffer the same less-than-ideal fate. At $14, again, it’s expensive, but at least the portion size is generous enough to share with a hungry table of four. A toppled hefty pile of translucent caramelized onions and squeezed fresh lemon that sits on top fail to imbue a more robust sweet-sour extra flavor that might take the appetizer to the next level. It’s hardly the worst pile of wet wings I have tried, but far from the best.
At Pizza La Stella, San Marzano tomato sauce belies the Bolognese ($17) brick-oven fired pie. The pizza is dotted with slices of meatball, garlic confit and a creamy blanket of mozzarella, fontina and romano cheeses. At 14- inches, the pie is big enough to share with a small crowd, giving others a chance to mix-and-match slices from different orders. The crust on the Neapolitan pie is blistered in a few spots and it exhibits a nice stealthy crunch when it meets your teeth. Small air pockets populate the middle of the thin-sliced pie that gives you visual hint on how hot the custom Stefano Ferrara ovens downstairs really get. The Bolognese overall sounds better than it tastes in execution as the meatballs fail to leave an indelible impression on anyone at the table.
The reliable duet of pancetta and arugula comes together in the Italian Stallion ($18). The white pizza is adorned with balsamic pearls and gorgonzola that hits all the buttery, savory, salty and savory notes that you might expect from this combination.
The Piccante Hawaiian ($19) exudes perhaps the most compelling flavor out of the three pizzas our party orders. The spicy concoction of the trendy Calabrian nduja sausage and pineapple pesto fires on all cylinders as the picante flavor dances on our tongues. The sour-savory components of the prosciutto and pineapple chunks works well in tandem with the melding of cheeses and San Marzano tomato sauce, though the wet ingredients make each slice easily flop over like a sock puppet as you hoist it into the air.
Pizza La Stella markets itself as a fast-casual spot to grab authentic Neapolitan pizza with friends. Though it’s comfortable and, indeed, casual inside, the price tag of each pizza might give you more pause than your standard artisan pizza joint. Still, it’s a welcome pizza option in the downtown vicinity and the laid-back, neighborhood concept seems like it will inhabit its home longer than its more ritzy predecessors.
PIZZA LA STELLA | 219 Fayetteville Street Raleigh NC 27601 | 984.200.2441