Stellina Pizzeria opens today near Union Market, bringing the burgeoning Northeast neighborhood a bright and whimsical spot that serves patiently fermented pizza crust, house-made pasta, and street food from Italy’s southern coast.
The anticipated, red-and-white tiled arrival (399 Morse Street NE) inhabits a ground floor corner of the new Edison apartment building that’s situated a short walk from recent high-profile arrival St. Anselm.
Stellina chef Matteo Venini and restaurateur Antonio Matarazzo previously worked for years together at D.C.’s sit-down Italian chain Lupo Verde.
“We wanted to do a different concept about the flavors of Italy in a more casual environment,” Matarazzo says. “It’s a fun space with a nice ambiance and feeling.”
Guests can order at the counter at the 50-seat space, which will soon add an al fresco option with 20 outdoor patio seats. There are options for delivery and takeout, too.
The menu pulls from the Northern and Southern Italian upbringings of the thick-accented owners (Venini and Matarazzo, respectively). A pricey Marra Forni oven churns out pies in less than two minutes.
Fans of Lupo Verde’s flagship, which opened on 14th Street NW in 2016, will remember some star dishes Venini used to make there. He’s bringing back his fried artichokes with herb mayonnaise and making tonnarelli, a Roman spaghetti, as a base for cacio e pepe. A cacio e pepe pizza will be topped with pecorino Romano, buffalo mozzarella, and toasted black pepper.
Venini plans to hold off on integrating some seasonal ingredients until the time is right. His Sicilian arancini, for example, are filled with meat ragù and mozzarella, but not green peas (yet).
Swordfish, common on plates across Sicily, also makes several appearances at Stellina. There’s a crudo and a lightly breaded Milanese-style sandwich, topped with a medley of marinated vegetables in a style reminiscent of Venini’s hometown near Lake Como.
One white pizza is inspired by Venini’s favorite childhood snack for breakfast: mortadella. The Schiacciata comes blanketed with large pistachio-encrusted mortadella slices imported from Italy, alongside mozzarella and stracciatella.
Stellina’s pies are made Neo-Neapolitan style, stretching the rigid requirements of the Neapolitan certification.
“We still use 100 percent Neapolitan ingredients, but with this slow fermentation it comes out a little crispier,” Venini says. “It’s a new trend of making pizza in the U.S. now. And Italy too — because even there now people are tired of soggy-style Neapolitan pizza.”
He uses a biga — or a fresh yeast prevalent in Italian bread-baking — to start his high-hydration dough, which then undergoes a 48-hour double fermentation process that allows more time to break down sugars.
“The dough at the end is going to be lighter, crispier, and easier to digest,” says Venini. “When dough is not matured and fermented right is when you feel heavy. It still ferments in your stomach.”
Doughs made in-house also double as building blocks for hefty paninis like the eggplant Parmesan-based Il Cuzzetiello. The sandwich is topped with leeks for an added crunch. It comes in a compact paper bag, a common packaging vessel used for grab-and-go orders hailed on the streets of Italy.
“It’s messy and delicious,” says Venini, who has also helmed high-end Italian kitchens at Posto and Tosca. All of his paninis are accompanied by house potato chips.
A sleek marble bar at the entrance, lined with succulents and delicate hand-painted accents, holds spirits from local amaro maker Don Ciccio & Figli. The brand’s new Ambrosia Italian herbal liqueur acts as a prime base for warm weather spritzes. Near the bar, a small retail wall is stocked with imported tins of olive oil and packaged pastas.
The opening lineup of ten cocktails ($10) was designed by Don Ciccio founder Francesco Amodeo, a fourth-generation distiller from Italy’s Amalfi Coast who is a close friend of Stellina’s owners. He’s busy gearing up to open an Ivy City cavernous distillery and bar in nearby Ivy City this month. Wine reps various regions across Italy, with some 50 types of red, white, rosé, and sparkling pours.
Stellina’s design has plenty of playful details. Once diners order, they’re handed a large wooden spoon marked with a number they’re instructed to plunk in a silver can on their table. There’s also a huge mural depicting a famous Italian comedian from the 1950s, dressed in a Dolce & Gabbana jacket plucked off a recent runway.
Colorful replicas of a textile pattern made by their favorite luxury Italian fashion house also line the walls, alongside photos of the owners’ Italian families. That includes Stella, Matarazzo’s daughter and the inspiration for the restaurant’s name.
Status: Certified open from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday to Thursday, and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. 399 Morse Street NE; website.