April 8, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Seeing Stars at Macy’s: Stella 34

Almost too beautiful to eat. Verdure, a technicolor of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
Almost too beautiful to eat. Verdure, a technicolor of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.

          My fussbudget friend Cassandra, on retreat in Florida all winter, reentered the metropolitan airspace this week. She wants to go somewhere hot for dinner.

          “Forget hot for a minute,” I urge her. “Let’s just go somewhere quiet and surprisingly good with a fabulous view of the city. Let’s go to Macy’s. There’s a new restaurant on the sixth floor called Stella.”

          “Macy’s?” She is incredulous. “Macy’s.”

The Empire State Building tower, in its new LED brilliance, looms outside the window.

          Cassandra is a creature of rigid habit. Nine times out of ten, she has a whole fish for dinner with a salad, and something green, nothing fried, nothing white except the wine. And it better be Chardonnay. I would fall off my chair from boredom. But she is a size 0, and I, merci à dieu Escoffier, am a restaurant critic.

          I promise her branzino al forno.

          “That’s okay then,” she says. “Wherever you need to go.”

Lasagna with black kale, sausage, and bread crumbs, in a swamp of creamy lushiousness.

          It’s not just that I need to go to Stella -- officially Stella 34 Trattoria -- I’m hungry for Stella. I’m haunted by the outrageously lush lasagna I discovered at a late lunch last week. With its seductive creaminess and the crunch of crumbs, it could make me forget Mom’s mac‘n’cheese. Alas, it means saving the luscious ridged tubes of tortiglioni pasta with bits of ham in fontina cream for another outing, though I’ve been craving that again too.

I’ll always be torn between creamy fontina’d pasta with ham and the seductive lasagna.

          Fortunately, there’s the insalata mista with shards of smoked ricotta and the brilliant verdure plate with three colors of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts for nutritional balance. I might even share a hill of peppery wilted escarole before tucking into the pork chop.

It’s rare to get a pork chop this thick, this pink, this juicy. With rutabaga and parsnip.

          It isn’t often I ask for my pork chop medium rare and get it quite so juicy and pink. The clever bits of candied mustard fruits, tossed into chunks of rutabaga and parsnip alongside the pig, taste a little bit like candy.

Check out how many local celebrities you recognize from the caricatures on the walls.

          I’ve been to Stella twice and have fallen hard for it’s urban mix. It can be full of shopping bags and tourist moppets and smart shoppers lunching at the prosecco bar by day, but that doesn’t seem to disturb the feel of upscale evening fuss at a window table, opposite the three wood-burning ovens. And prices are relatively gentle, with pasta and entrees $17 to $32, and wines in quartino, enough to fill and refill your glass, starting at $10.

Tonight the Empire State Tower is decked out in red, white and blue.  I can’t guess why?

          Not yet discovered, it can be quiet at 8 p.m. as the streets darken, the staff lowers the lights, and the Empire State Building looms into view. Tonight, I sit with my back to the skyscrapers hulking over our table so Cassandra and our pal Donnie get the full impact. The top of the tower is red, white, and blue.

Everyone does Caesar salad these days, but this one has escarole and white anchovies.

          The young serving crew in their sneakers and sea green shirts have a just-born freshness, at least so far. They rush over smiling and run off for ice or serving spoons.  It’s cute how eager they are to recite the provenance of the olive oil. “It’s cold pressed, so there might be some streaks in it.”

Could be recognizing us provoked extra suckling pig, the rotisserie special one evening.

          Ask what was here before in this sweeping high-ceilinged room, now paved with celebrity caricatures. “It was a storeroom with windows painted black to keep the sun off the clothes,” our waitress responds. Unfortunately, they seem to have been religiously trained to ask if we love the dish.  Even once is too many times to ask, and four or five definitely, especially if I’m chewing.

Here it is, Neapolitan pizza alla diavolo, though the sausage could be more piccante.

          When Patina Group brass walk the floor, you sense the snap. If top boss Nick Valenti comes through – he’s a Citymeals-on-Wheels board member and one of my advertisers – you’re not likely to dismiss him as just some guy shopping for a mattress. Take it from me, that’s where the perfectionist details come from. Flour from Naples, water for the pizza dough sourced from local wells to match the mineral balance of Naples spring water. Three ovens, not one. Menu items written in Italian. Good bread, sliced à la minute. Executive chef Jonathan Benno dispatched from Lincoln to oversee. Jarett Appell, recruited from Donatella, to run the kitchen.

Barbabietole means roasted beets -- here with lentils, arugula and candied pistachios.

          The truth is, I love most everything I’ve eaten here. I actually like the insalatas better than the pizza. The Napoli, with salami and prosciutto atop chopped romaine and arugula with artichokes, is my favorite. Barbabietole, red and yellow beets, lentils and arugula with a creamy sprawl of stracciatella cheese and candied pistachios is a close second. Big, fat, sausage-flecked rice balls come in sets of two – worth splitting if you happen to be four.

The rotisseried chicken looked glorious but suffered from over-salting.

          I’ve had better, fresher-tasting, tomato sauce. And the one time I ordered the rotisserie chicken, it was perfectly cooked but wildly oversalted. I took it home thinking it might taste better at room temperature next day. It tasted even saltier. Neapolitan pizza is soft. So if, like me, you want your crust crispy, remember to ask.

Considering other hefty portion sizes, the branzino al forno strikes me as meager.

          Given the heft of one evening’s special -- excellent suckling pig -- juicy from the rotisserie with many ribbons of crackling skin, I’m sad to see the puny size of tonight’s branzino from the oven.  Cassandra does not take it lightly.  That whole fish she usually eats every night would be twice the size, she complains. Although the fish is billed on the menu with artichokes, potatoes and olives, there is exactly one piece of artichoke in an oily rubble of sliced potatoes. Not that the potatoes aren’t marvelous, just nothing she would deign to eat.

Garlicky escarole, wilted, with an afterkick of hot pepper.

          When I mention the artichoke issue to a server, he fetches a few more in a small ramekin.  A side of broccoli rabe is rushed to our table. Cassandra’s idea of dessert is decaf espresso, but she joins in to finish off the delizia al limone, a marvelous miniature meringued tart with lemon curd gelato. 

A dessert to remember, toasted lemon meringue tart with lemon curd gelato.

          It’s not certifiably celestial here next to the linen department. Not yet. Still, Stella strikes me as a perfect place to come for dinner and a conversation, to catch up with friends you can’t hear in restaurants with wind tunnel acoustics, where you can’t see without a flashlight in the chi chi shadows. I’d come here with my vegetarian niece from Montana for the vegetable options and the view. I’d love to bring jet setters from Paris and friends who divide their time between Le Bernardin and Daniel just to show them this odd little jewel.  Will they get it?  I’m not sure. 

Imported directly from Florence, Vivoli gelati. Make mine mandarine and pineapple.

          But Cassandra gets it. “I love sitting here,” she says, gazing out at the night sky, “I love looking at ths view. It’s right near the garment center. Fashion people should come. And isn’t this the hot new neighborhood? People laughed when I called it NoMad. But now it’s a destination.”

Dedicated elevators to Stella from Macy's Broadway and 35th Street entrance, anytime and after closing. 212 967 9251. Seven days Lunch 11:30 am to 4 pm. Dinner Monday-Saturday 4 pm to 10 pm, Sunday till 9pm.

Photographs may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2013.

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