I can’t hear the name Stella without thinking of Marlon Brando playing working-class Stanley Kowalski in the movie A Streetcar Named Desire. In the film’s steamiest scene, Kowalski stands in a courtyard hollering for his wife Stella as his wet T-shirt hangs off one shoulder to reveal the finest beefcake of the early ‘50s.
Would that I had similarly delicious memories of Stella Modern Bistro, the 9-month-old restaurant inhabiting the former Central Bistro on Camelback Road. After three visits over the past seven months, I can’t say I love – or even particularly like – this forgettable newcomer. Trust me, I’m not playing the nitpicky critic here. Neither of the two chary friends who accompanied me on visits one and two could be convinced that the third time would be the charm.
The inviting space, redesigned last summer to give it a fresh identity, isn’t the problem. I can imagine grabbing a plush bar stool in the multi-windowed lounge or chilling out on the back patio if the food and drinks were better, but nothing leaves an impression – not the pedestrian cocktails or the ho-hum beer selection and certainly not the unfocused, Italian-inflected menu that reads like a quaint flashback to decades passed. Executive chef William Machiavello’s latest selections seem to be a purposeful downgrade from the pricier, more upscale dishes offered up by the restaurant’s first executive chef before his departure. Still, I wonder who the audience for this uninspired conglomeration of greatest hits might be.
A disappointingly mild raspberry-jalapeño margarita sums up my feelings about pretty much everything here – not awful, but a little snoozy. The same can be said for a charcuterie board, accompanied by house-made pickles and candied pecans, which is strictly OK in light of the benchmark set by Stock & Stable’s superior rendition found on Seventh Street. However, Stella’s tender, lightly breaded and fried calamari, served with house-made marinara and tangy lemon-basil aioli, zips me back to the ‘90s in a good way. It’s simple and satisfying.
I can’t find many other reasons to get excited, however – certainly not by a serviceable bacon burger or a slab of lasagna containing too many sheets of overcooked pasta and too little cheese, or a slightly chewy steak au poivre that doesn’t deliver on the peppery promise in its name. Served with a limp, soupy Caesar, it’s a tame version of a French bistro classic.
Although the toppings are slightly dry and overcooked, I love the flavors found in the small, thin-crust Vegan Hater pizza topped with a spicy-salty mix of soppressata, calabrese (spicy salami), Italian sausage, chorizo and mozzarella. On my last visit, there’s also silky panna cotta topped with crumbles of sweet maple bacon, a dessert good enough to raise the question: Could this, or anything else I’ve eaten at Stella, lure me back? The short answer is no. I can find a cooler, more thoughtful beverage program and better food within minutes of this place, all offered at similar prices. I’d love to find a great new neighborhood hangout, but hollering for Stella? Ain’t gonna happen.
Stella Modern Bistro
Contact: 3160 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 480-646-8560, stellaaz.com
Hours: Su-Tu 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; W-Sa 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Highlights: Salumi board ($17), fried calamari ($11), Vegan Hater pizza ($13), bacon burger ($12), steak au poivre ($23)
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