- Mike Sula
- Pizza with house-made pork sausage, Stella Barra
I came away from such a harrowing pizza experience at Eataly
that I was left reconsidering the old saw that there's no such thing as bad pizza. So I was eager to recalibrate my expectations at Lincoln Park's Stella Barra Pizzeria, of which I'd heard nothing but encouraging chatter. On the other hand, Stella Barra is the next-door neighbor and sibling to Summer House Santa Monica
, where I was fairly discouraged by the inconsistent and blunderbuss approach to a merely nominal southern-California-style menu. Both restaurants are part of Empire Lettuce
and are helmed by chef Jeff Mahin, who on the night I visited was entertaining a rabble of tykes and their parents standing before the open kitchen while he tossed circles of dough in the air in front of the quadruple-decker electric pizza oven.
Eataly notwithstanding, Chicago is in a golden age of pizza, and it's a bit of a surprise that unlike almost every other new joint that opens, Stella Barra is using electricity instead of wood to heat its oven. But the marvelous pizzas Mahin and company are turning out just go to show that you don't need an imported wood-burning oven handcrafted by Campanian peasants to make good—no, great—pies.
The style Stella Barra is working with comes close to New Haven pizza, a New World relative to Neapolitan pizza, though Stella Barra's pizzas are smaller than a typical New Haven pie (Piece makes New Haven pies too). Stella Barra's are built on a very thin crust that ends in a highly raised edge. Unlike most Neapolitan pizzas, which have a mushy nucleus, Stella Barra's are thoroughly cooked across the diameter. And though they don't have the uniformly stippled char on their undercarriage that a superhot oven would produce, they're toasty and crackly and have more than enough strength to support their toppings. (For what it's worth, the oven temperatures on my visit were hovering around 520 degrees.) There's an extrathin "thin sin" crust available too, if you're pretending to be a weight-obsessed southern Californian.
The pies are offered in a variety of reds, such as margherita or pepperoni, and whites, like butternut squash or prosciutto and egg. My pals and I went with a deeply fungal shaved-mushroom pie, with Gruyere, melted onions, rosemary, finely chopped mushrooms, and black truffles that tasted like the depths of a virgin forest. We also got a red pie with subtly spiced house-made pork sausage, fresh mozzarella, and fennel pollen. The toppings on both pies were distributed just right and harmonized perfectly with the crust.
Maybe the reason Stella Barra succeeds where Summer House fails is because it's concentrating mostly on just pizza. Sure, you can order a plate of meatballs, or a couple pastas, or a few of the more winning little plates offered next door—like the mountainous chopped salad, nutty brown-butter-roasted cauliflower, or the fresh burrata with grilled grapes and the house's terrific crusty toasted bread. But it's mostly all about the pizza, which, you know, is really just bread.
On that note, I have to give another shout-out to the bakery case separating the entrances to Summer House and Stella Barra. Along with the oversize cookies, brownies, Rice Krispie treats, and English muffins, bread and baking in general seem to be among these two restaurants'—and Mahin's—greatest strengths.
Stella Barra Pizzeria, 1954 N. Halsted, 773-634-4101, stellabarra.com