Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Piece of My Heart: Stella Sola

Before I went there, I couldn’t wrap my head around Stella Sola’s concept. A Texany take on Tuscan food... Did that mean big-ass bowls of pasta? Topped with Velveeta? Refried beans? And passive-aggressive barbs delivered with sparkling manners? Sadly enough, I could prolly get behind that.

Turns out, Texas-Tuscan is a whole lotta awesome: Beautifully fresh black mussels steamed in Lone Star beer, captivating crudos of Gulf fish like sea bream and jack, tender braised short ribs on a bed of sautéed chard, and country style pork ribs topped with jalapeno pesto. In short, Texas-Tuscan is alluring combinations of local foods and Italian styles that complement each other so well, you’d swear they just occur that way in nature.

And those dishes up there? Aren’t even among the best reasons to try the place. Really, the must-tries are the house-cured meats and homemade pastas. Chef Justin Basye’s famed expertise with salumi is deservedly on display -- literally, in the form of the gorgeous rows of sausages and cured meats hanging just outside the main dining room, and figuratively, in the form of the menu’s incomparable charcuterie plate. Crisp bacon, spicy Polish sausage, paper-thin prosciutto, and creamy lardo... Each more exceptional than the last.

But the menu is truly anchored by an evolving list of delicate pastas. The calamarata pasta topped with gulf rock shrimp and fennel sausage is a keeper -- and though it sits on the appetizer menu, methinks it’s plenty big for a dinner portion. The pappardelle topped with Texas wild boar ragu sings, but not quite as much as the brown butter gnocchi with roasted mushrooms and arugula; this dish is actually less rich than it sounds and is always a table favorite. Even the spaghetti features a Texan flair... Break open the *colossal* meatballs, and you’ll find a gumball-sized hole filled with melted Fontina cheese. Not kidding.

My most recent meal at Stella Sola reminded me just how much I love the place. And it’s more than just the menu. Gone is the hotel-like decor of the space’s previous iteration. In its place you’ll find a down-to-Earth dining room dotted with knowledgeable servers. And nowhere is there a sense of pretension or entitlement. You get the idea that the guys in the kitchen have just as much fun making the food as you have eating it. And that’s why it rules.

The place gives me the warm fuzzies, holds a piece of my heart, and lights my fire. I choo-choo-choose you, Stella Sola. Will you be my valentine?

Stella Sola - 1001 Studewood in the Heights