We’re living in a golden age of pizza. From Darnestown, Md., to Arlington, Va., and countless places in between, good-to-great pies can be had with just a short drive from our homes. I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to celebrate this fact. With all due respect to those raised on Ledo’s and Armand’s (believe me, I understand how the pizzas of our youth worm their way into our hearts, a love that transcends all knowledge), it wasn’t always so easy to get a decent pie 15 years ago in Washington.
Well, we can officially add one more to the list of slammable pies: Stellina Pizzeria in what’s known as the Union Market district.
Stellina is a joint project between restaurateur Antonio Matarazzo and chef Matteo Venini, Italian natives who first worked together for the Lahlou Group, the parent company of Lupo Verde on 14th Street NW and its sister restaurants. They shared a vision for their debut venture: It would be more than a pizzeria with a handful of appetizers and salads. Their restaurant could theoretically walk you through a classic Italian dinner — if you accept their notion that a panino is an acceptable substitution for the muscular secondo course — with the caveat that you have to order it all at the counter.
One look at the thick slice of pork belly, rolled with a layer of minced and herbed offal, and I have no lingering doubts that one of Stellina’s porchetta panini can stand in for a main course. The slab of belly lounges between two slices of Ligurian focaccia — its dimpled exterior crisp and pooled with fine olive oil — along with mushrooms and salsa verde. This manipulation of pork, fat, flour and time is the kind of dripping excess that would sate a Roman emperor, or just a policy wonk with a monstrous appetite.
Personally, I think such an appetite is rare among the cubicle dwellers, who just don’t burn enough calories during the day to stand a chance against this Italian dinnertime tsunami of cheese, cured meats, fried appetizers, pasta, pork, salads, dessert and coffee. Which is why I think Stellina’s fast-casual approach works so well: You can easily build a truncated, and personalized, version of a traditional Italian repast.
Start with a Negroni, the bitter nectar that stimulates the appetite faster than onions browning in a pan. Stellina has Negroni on tap, its balance almost balletic. You could pair the cocktail with any number of Venini’s appetizers, but I’d suggest his interpretation of Roman-style artichokes, which the former fine-dining chef cuts and fries to look like, well, big frilly dust mops. Crispy on the outside, the artichoke hearts go down like butter, a richness countered with a bracing slap of lemon. You also can’t go wrong with the Sicilian arancini, these crackly globes that split open to reveal rice grains so rich and swollen with stock they taste like risotto, even though they weren’t finished with butter and Parmesan. Frankly, I’d skip the fried Brussels sprouts, which arrive bone dry and underseasoned.
The pastas are made in house, and you’ll be tempted by the cacio e pepe, the cheesy Roman dish with a Kardashian-like ability to appear everywhere at once. Stellina’s version doesn’t disappoint, but it also doesn’t compare to the gold standard at Rose’s Luxury. My pick is Venini’s paccheri all’Avellinese, a plate of wide-mouthed tubes, cooked to just the right level of chewiness, and covered with a ragu and the chef’s secret weapon: a melting layer of shaved pecorino pepato, an aged sheep’s milk cheese that hits you with both salt and pepper. You’ll want something big, red and fruity to drink with the paccheri, such as a nebbiolo or a Sangiovese, and Stellina’s compact-but-well-curated wine list has you covered.
If you’re really determined to order cacio e pepe, I’d suggest turning to Venini’s ingenious pizza engineered to mimic the flavors of the dish. The cacio e pepe pie doubles down on the cheese, starting with a base of ricotta that subs for the tomato sauce and finishing with mozzarella because, duh, it’s pizza. In between those milky curds, the kitchen layers in two more cheeses — cacio di Roma, pecorino Romano — and an indecorous amount of toasted black pepper. This is a substantial pie, a cheese pizza’s cheese pizza. It’s a good thing Venini has developed a dough that can withstand the weight of all that coagulated milk. His crust looks Neapolitan, with its air bubbles and char, but it has the load-bearing crispiness of a Roman pizza.
I think it’s worth elaborating more on Venini’s dough. I find it fairly unique among pizzamakers in the area: He starts with a biga, or a small amount of dough that ferments 24 hours, and incorporates it into his larger batch, which he then places in the walk-in for three days. Venini bakes off his rounds in a high-heat Marra Forni gas oven, which draws out the moisture from the dough, leaving you with something crisp and just a wee bit chewy. But because of the dough’s long fermentation, you’re not biting into a dry, crackerlike base. This crust has an understated sweetness, ideal for any one of the available combinations, whether the salt offensive of the Napoli or the simple pleasures of the classic margherita.
My main complaint about Stellina is its design. Not its interior design, this playful mix of organic, industrial and artistic elements, but its physical layout. When you enter the place for the first time, you’re at a loss on what to do next. There is no host stand (of course), and the first counter you see is not the one where you place an order. That one is located farther down the line, past the pizza oven and open kitchen. Stellina has no natural flow for customers, which means that Matarazzo and Venini’s first order of business may be to deal with your disorientation. They can easily resolve this with a warm greeting or a cold Peroni, but a better solution would be to find a way to guide diners through their terrific pizzeria.
399 Morse St. NE, 202-851-3995; stellinapizzeria.com.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, and Tuesday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: NoMa-Gallaudet U-New York Ave. Station, with a .3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $10 to $15 for salads and appetizers; $13 to $16 for pizza, pasta and panini.