I took advantage of a recent beautiful summer day to take a stroll on my lunch break and check out Stella Del Mare on Madison Avenue near South Pearl. I had heard great things about this hole in the wall grocery and deli, although it’s a little bit out of the way from my usual lunch circuit. A rather unassuming storefront gives way to a narrow grocery store and a seating area with only a handful of small tables. The store offers a few sandwiches, including an Italian sub and hot sandwiches like eggplant parm or meatball, as well as a rotating set of hot entrees.
I thought at first that I had arrived too late and all of the hot dishes were sold out, but in fact the entrees are hiding off to the side of the front counter near the windows. There did not appear to be a list anywhere of the day’s specials, requiring the man behind the counter to rattle off ten or fifteen choices to each lunch guest that arrived. On this particular day, this included meatloaf, cavatelli with broccoli rabe, pork loin with roast potatoes, beef ravioli, penne alla vodka with chicken and peas, chicken parm, meatballs, liver and onions, and spaghetti with garlic and oil. You can mix and match in a stuffed to-go container for around eight dollars.
Taken aback by the multitude of tempting options, I ordered the first three that sounded appealing. I quickly realized that the portion size was going to be giant as the first two were loaded into my container (plus a small buttered roll, which turned out to be a mini-loaf of complimentary bread). So I had to scale back to only the penne alla vodka with chicken and peas and the chicken parm.
This was a hefty meal. The chicken parm was served in dense squares with a thick layer of cheese smothering a few pieces of thin breaded chicken. The penne alla vodka had a perfect sauce – rich and buttery with a hint of sweetness, but without too much heavy cream distracting from the classic flavors. Both were dusted with some powdered Parmesan cheese. The bread was fairly unremarkable, and would have been better with a dish that had lots of sauce to sop up. Ultimately I could only manage to eat around half of this meal, so there were some delicious leftovers to take home. You could easily come here and split one container with two or more people.
Stella Del Mare certainly isn’t serving up a fine wine type of Italian cuisine. It’s more of a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare presented in informal sheet pans and served in giant to-go servings. It was modest and unpretentious but undeniably enjoyable (and a fantastic value). Something about the small interior and the friendly proprietor behind the counter explaining the day’s menu over and over again to each customer, many of them regulars, added to the folksy charm of the place. Come early to have the full selection available, and definitely come hungry.