Stella Neighborhood Trattoria marks a significant change for Grant Park and its surrounding neighborhoods. It's located on the stretch of Memorial Drive between Boulevard and downtown that, up until now, has housed nothing slicker than the Standard. Stella doesn't really fit in with its awesomely shabby pink neighbor Mi Barrio, or with the more punk-rock aesthetic of Ria's Bluebird. And even though Stella belongs to a family of homegrown restaurants, it still has the feel and demeanor of a well-conceived chain restaurant.
Stella is part of Rich Chey's empire, which also includes Doc Chey's (now with locations in North and South Carolina) and Osteria 832. It's hard not to feel as though Stella is the beginning of the Virginia-Highlandification of Atlanta's eastern neighborhoods. When gentrification is old news, the next step is restaurants with less personality, and perhaps a tad more consistency than the funky act-of-love spots already there.
In a gleaming new (and to my eye, totally out of place) building, Stella's grey decor is clean and familiar and devoid of genuine personality. To complain about this is as futile as bemoaning the housing market's overinflation. If the Edgewood shopping district has taught us anything, it's that despite being corporate-hating intown hipsters, we'll flock to what's cheap and convenient.
Not that Stella lacks charm in certain areas, and not that it should be likened to the horror of Highland Avenue's big purple Grape wine bar. Unlike the Grape, the neighborhood seems to have been taken into consideration when the plans were made for Stella. It's a place where families can get carbed-up on house-made pastas served with hormone-free meats. Stella could become a personal-feeling neighborhood restaurant despite its slightly sterile atmosphere.
The familiarity begins with service, which includes some friendly managers and waiters who all wear matching T-shirts (adding, again, to the corporate vibe). They're still finding their groove and pacing is currently a problem. Entrees arrive within minutes of appetizers, and long waits ensue when checks are requested. But there's a genuine eagerness to please, which helps make up for most missteps.
Stella's two main draws are its prices and quality of ingredients. Veggies and sauces are organic, and nothing costs more than $13. A few appetizers veer into creativity, including the light and savory salt cod fritters with lemon-garlic aioli and the woodsy, rustic polenta with mushroom ragu. From there the menu moves into safer, more familiar territory, with mixed results.
An appetizer of mussels roasted in white wine swims in acid with no rich butter counterpoint in the broth to soften the experience. Overly simple arugula salad delivers very little you couldn't get by eating arugula straight out of a bag, the shaved parmigiano and lemon vinaigrette somehow failing to give the dish the punch it needs. Pizzas sport thin wheat crusts and are crackly and pleasing straight from the oven, but develop cardboard qualities as soon as the slices begin to cool.
The house-made pastas lack the beautiful delicacy associated with superfresh pasta, but some of the best dishes come from this section of the menu. The Baci in particular, a dish of pasta "purses" stuffed with cheese and drenched in cream and tomato sauce, manages to be light and balanced despite its rich ingredients. Pork ragu over pappardelle could have been a smidge more tender, but was hearty and comforting all the same. The strangest dish I encountered on the pasta menu was the lasagna, which tasted overwhelmingly of nutmeggy béchamel.
The eggplant parmigiana entree finds success with fresh-tasting creamy eggplant and a well-balanced pomodoro sauce.
Dessert often seems like an afterthought on the kitchen's part. A weird baked cheesecake comes piping hot in a cast-iron skillet with a crust thicker than the cheese filling. A special of cannoli seemed to lack any sugar at all in the filling or shells, the absence of sweetness heightened by the garnish of unsweetened cocoa. A serviceable but forgettable tiramisu has been the best dessert option so far.
Like Osteria 832, Stella's kids' menu comes with a list of behaviors the restaurant deems unacceptable. The note stresses that the restaurant aims to be family-friendly, but I question the hospitality of presenting anyone with a menu that dictates behavior, no matter how reasonable the request. I'm sure no parents enter a restaurant hoping their child will scream or smear food around, and I'm not sure how a menu admonishing those behaviors helps. As the parent of a child who is quite unlikely to ever break any of Stella's rules, I found it condescending and unwelcoming.
Once upon a time, Virginia-Highland was a bohemian neighborhood with affordable housing. Once upon a time, Grant Park was considered "transitional." The neighborhood has been living in the golden age between sketchy and commercialized, and there's no denying that Stella represents the beginning of the march toward a more homogenized future. But it's a cheap, often satisfying and organic step, and I suppose that's as good as we can hope for. Stella is simply filling the needs of a neighborhood that has become more populated by hungry families and professionals than starving artists and their ilk.
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