With Stella's, there's some new star power in Old Lyme

Stella's roasted asparagus with Parmesan cheese (left, foreground) and the Melanzana appetizer, a construction of fried eggplant, fresh mozzarella, and tomato with a balsamic glaze. (Marisa Nadolny/Special to The Day)
Stella's roasted asparagus with Parmesan cheese (left, foreground) and the Melanzana appetizer, a construction of fried eggplant, fresh mozzarella, and tomato with a balsamic glaze. (Marisa Nadolny/Special to The Day)

It was Illiano’s; it was Joey’s; and now we have Stella’s on Route 1 in Old Lyme — and the change brings with it an upgrade in local Italian eats.

There is some overlap with the high-ceilinged pizza joint of the past, as Stella’s offers a slate of gourmet pizzas that left us stuck in indecision for far too long. Should we try the basic margherita ($15.95)? Go for the gusto with the house-meatball-topped Polpetine ($16.95)? I made the executive decision to go with the Quattro Formaggio ($15.95) for one important reason: no stinky cheese. Four-cheese pizzas are not uncommon around here; four-cheese pizzas without gorgonzola or some equally piquant cheese are a rarity in my experience. I hate stinky cheese. I’ve tried to like it over the years, and my taste buds have not sufficiently died off enough to tolerate the nosehair-curling tang of blue cheeses. Hurray for Stella’s, which tops its four-cheese white pie with mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and cheddar and a dash of herbs.

The four cheeses in question blended nicely; the hard cheeses added a kick of salty, deeper flavor to the characteristically mellow and melty mozz and cheddar. The pie did well enough without red sauce, although it starts to present like flatbread after too long — partially thanks to the serviceable but uninspired crust. We think this pizza might be improved with pomodoros in some form.

But life is about balance, and the Pasta Fagioli ($6, one size only) we ordered as a starter exceeded expectations and, indeed, ranks as one of the best I’ve tried. Stella’s take on this hearty soup features more tomato flavor than some, and it’s a delicious strategy. The acidic notes of tomato lighten the load of this otherwise beefy, pasta-laden brew with excellent effect.

Now, here’s the best part of Tasting #1: the house-made Strawberry Ricotta Cheesecake, which, at $7.50, costs more than the soup. You’ve got to love a place that takes dessert this seriously. Steep price aside, we heartily enjoyed the deceivingly demure little dessert. It looks small, but after a few forkfuls of thick, rich cake, you’ll likely start tapering off, although you won’t want to. For one, strawberry glaze and whipped cream are always yummy. Add on a thick layer of graham-cracker-y crumbs atop the ricotta-rich base, which present two distinct flavor notes apiece, and you’ve got cheesecake heaven.

Speaking of outstanding dishes, on the other side of the flavor spectrum you’ve got the Roasted Asparagus with Parmesan ($6.95 on the Sides menu, but we ordered it as a starter). I know asparagus has its haters out there, but if you decide to give the stalk-y green another shot, go try it at Stella’s. We’re fans of asparagus just about any way it’s made, but at Stella’s, ours was roasted and seasoned to perfection and dusted with the right amount of Parm. We paired it with an order of Melanzana ($10.95), a “tower” of fried eggplant (light, flavorful, and among the best we’ve had), sliced tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella, drizzled in a spectacular balsamic glaze. We can say the sum was the best expression of the parts, but every last piece of the Melanzana was delicious and, P.S., it was presented beautifully with balsamic accents on our crisp white plate.

Apps demolished, we noted that we were both at least half full, thanks in part to the warm, fresh bread we were served before the apps came out. It’s hard to say which was better: the bread, with its crisp crust and warm, soft interior or the accompanying, excellent olive oil and pesto dip. We’d love to know where Stella’s gets its olive oil, because it lent the dip a bright, almost-citrus-like flavor, balanced by herbs and spices. The bread baker deserves a franchise.

We managed to make honest dents in our main plates in the name of research, though. Stella’s offers a slate of “stuffed burgers” on its lunch menu, which means exactly what it sounds like: beef patties stuffed with a variety of things, including macaroni and cheese, shrimp, mushrooms and spinach, and, my choice, fresh mozzarella, bruschetta, and basil, otherwise known as the Caprese Burger ($14.95).

That’s a pricey burger, but rest assured this is a huge serving, and it comes with fries, a lovely salad of arugula and fresh fennel, and it’s placed upon a very good knot roll. (Note to Stella’s: Package that salad and sell it as a side! The lemon-infused dressing is amazing!)

Here’s the catch: there was no way on this green earth that I was going to eat my burger in the traditional style. My jaw is simply not wide enough. So I did what any researcher would do, and I knife-and-forked it down to size. As promised, ample Caprese fixings emerged from within the burger, and they were a nice complement to the beef — it likely would have been better if the beef had spent less time on the grill. I ordered my burger medium (even questioning internally if it was even possible), and found my burger on the “well” side of medium, but honestly I suspect the stuffed style of burger does not lend itself to a patty prepared medium or under.

The menu description of our second main dish, the Ravioli di Ricotta ($17.95), caught our attention quickly: “ricotta ravioli in smoked tomato butter and pesto sauce.” That “smoked tomato butter” exists is (good) news to me, and we were pleased to learn it tastes as good as it sounds. While the red sauce that came with the ravioli resembled basic tomato sauce, the deep, rich tomato flavor and vibrant herbal notes place it far away from anything basic. The pasta itself was fine but owed much to the sauce.

We ate so, so much, and yet there are many, many more options on the Stella’s menu, including nearly a dozen entrees, more pasta dishes, and a slew of desserts (including gelato). This great effort to prepare quality meals for a variety of palates makes it likely the name Stella’s will stick around for some time.

 

The (giant) Caprese Burger, an Angus beef patty stuffed with tomato, basil, and fresh mozzarella, served with arugula and fresh fennel. (Marisa Nadolny/Special to The Day)
The (giant) Caprese Burger, an Angus beef patty stuffed with tomato, basil, and fresh mozzarella, served with arugula and fresh fennel. (Marisa Nadolny/Special to The Day)

If you go

Stella’s Restaurant and Pizzeria 

163 Boston Post Road, Old Lyme

(860) 598-9385

dineatstellas.com*

Cuisine: Italian classics and pizza

Atmosphere: Lofty space with new mod lighting accents, gray-blue color scheme, and a sweeping bar area.

Service: Friendly and courteous

Prices: Pricey; pizzas (16 inches) average around $15.95; entrees range from $16.95 to $30.95.

Handicapped access: Provided from the rear lot; interior is quite spacious

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday

Reservations: Available

Credit cards: Accepted

*At press time, the website did not include menus.

 

 

 

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