The *twinkle twinkle* is proving elusive for this Italian eatery.
Stelle, a small, family run, Italian restaurant in Tyrone Avenue, Parkview has been open for a number of years. It hasn’t made its mark on the Johannesburg dining scene – in fact many may not be aware it even exists. The name “Stelle” means ‘stars’ in Italian. It was originally named after the three female chefs, stars of Italian cuisine. Indeed they were, I had eaten there twice in the past and the food was quite superb. The restaurant was usually full of festive Italians enjoying noisy family meals accompanied by vast quantities of Chianti, Limoncello and Grappa. The food was authentic, inventive, simple and Italian to the core. Since, Stelle rather fell off my radar – until it was recommended to me recently as “the best Italian food in Joburg.” A visiting friend from Botswana presented us with the perfect excuse to go and try Stelle again.
The restaurant is small and unassuming, with sponged-yellow walls and warm lighting. The local art, which previously adorned the walls, has been replaced by a sparse collection of rather clichéd ‘typically Tuscan’ frescos. When we arrived it was completely empty. We were welcomed, but not made to feel immediately at home – a pity, as this is a home-style restaurant after all.
The wine list at Stelle is brief but interesting. There are a few Italian options, like Chianti, to choose from (provided these are all in stock). We enjoyed a bottle of Villeira Merlot 2010, a versatile wine which would complement most of the dishes we were going to order.
We were encouraged by the food on the menu – traditional Italian dishes with fine ingredients. Expect the likes of burrata, truffles, homemade pastas and gnocchi, prosciutto di Parma and a delectable assortment of Italian desert pastries. Unfortunately the staff did not seem particularly knowledgeable about, or interested in, the menu. This made it difficult to establish essentials like portion size (were we to go the whole hog – each ordering an antipasti starter, pasta based primi piatti and a meat based secondi piatti?). We were also surprised at the number of pictures on the menu – if these were in lieu of explanations they were ineffective – giving the restaurant a cafeteria feeling.
For starters we ordered buratta, which seems to be enjoying a bit of a celeb status in South Africa at the moment. A fresh Italian cheese with an outer shell of mozzarella enveloping a soft centre of mozzarella mixed with cream. This gives it a really soft, silky texture. The burrata itself was delicious but presentation left a lot to be desired. The plate had been covered with whole, undressed lettuce leaves, scattered with a few half cherry-tomatoes and the large glob of torn-up burrata plonked in the middle. After we’d seasoned it with salt, pepper and a generous splash of olive oil it was better. We also started with carpaccio di polpo. Slices of cooked octopus with potato, parsley, olive oil and lemon. The dish was highly flavoursome and the presentation slightly more aesthetically pleasing.
For mains, two of us had pasta. The first consisted of home-made lasagne sheets with leeks and truffle sauce. Although the pasta was slightly overcooked, the simple yet complimentary flavours proved quite enjoyable. It was good to see generous shavings of fresh truffle which added contrast and that wonderful, nutty taste. The second pasta dish, pastas al salmon e zucchini was served with salmon cream and baby marrows. This time the pasta was cooked perfectly and the dish was tasty and enjoyable. Another member of the group ordered a scallopine di vitello al masala for a main course. The presentation was fine for a dish in a home-style restaurant but not particularly appetising. More importantly however, the veal was sadly overcooked, rather tough and dry. The masala sauce lacked the richness one would expect.
I tried a hazelnut sfogliatine for desert. A small phyllo pastry parcel, filled with hazelnut cream. Perfect with espresso and just the right size to give one that sweet sensation after a large meal without feeling too full.
Italian food is generally simple, making use of a few, good quality ingredients. Because of this simplicity, the kitchen is key. When dishes rely so heavily on their ingredients for success, and these components are not prepared to a high standard, the experience can become frustrating for the diner. Although most of our food at Stelle was tasty and undoubtedly authentic, there were some basic errors which need to be rectified if the establishment is to regain popularity.
The service at Stelle could benefit from a modicum more charm and attention to detail. The two waitresses spent most of the evening chatting amongst themselves. Serious over-gesticulating was required to draw their attention. Two other individuals (presumably the chefs) were visible in the kitchen. They made no effort to engage us or find out how our meal was – in spite of walking past us to go outside several times.
The atmosphere was also a bit grim. Uninspiring décor and tinny Italian music rendered the ambiance rather more sullen than the warm joviality one might expect from a home-style restaurant.
I feel genuinely disappointed that a restaurant which I once enjoyed so much, and remember fondly, could have deteriorated to this extent. Stelle, which used to proudly embrace its heritage and culture has become disinterested and uninteresting. Of course my recent experience is only based on one meal during the week. Maybe it is pumping on the weekends and we just hit a bad night, though something makes me doubt that. I love the idea of authentic and family run restaurants and I would dearly like to see this establishment get back on track. Stelle needs a firm hand, a good manager, an enthusiastic staff who have been taught about the food and probably a good advertising campaign. I hope this former shining star has not become a black hole.
Three starters, three mains, 1 desert pastry, 1 bottle of wine, 1 bottle of water and two espressos cost us R 900 including tip.
You can contact Stelle on +27 (0) 11 646 6996
This review was sent to the restaurant for comment on 21st August 2012