My nationwide pizza crawl continued at Stella Rosa in Santa Monica on Tuesday night, convenient since I’d just seen Dominic Smith play around the corner at Santa Monica High School. Stella Rosa is also on that Food and Wine list of the best pizzerias in the U.S., but I thought it was just kind of average overall, a little better than the Arizona chain Grimaldi’s (related to but not owned by the same folks who run the original in Brooklyn) but not close to the others on the list I’ve tried. Stella Rosa makes the sausage for their sausage pizza in-house and they dust the pizza with fennel pollen, all of which is great, but the pizza was overtopped so that it was swimming in water – not just wet in the center, Neapolitan-style, but just watery overall, and with mozzarella that was so moisture-reduced already it became a little tough in the cooking. Their dough is more New York-style than ultra-thin Italian-style, crunchy underneath like the exterior of a baguette instead of like a cracker. They have an interesting menu of salads, so it might be a better experience with a crowd, and the attached marketplace (called “M”) offers some enormous cookies, including a chocolate chip cookie with dark chunks of chocolate and fleur de sel sprinkled on top that I may or may not have just inhaled.
I also neglected to mention the one meal I ate in Houston last week, at Bryan Caswell’s very highly regarded seafood restaurant Reef. Caswell was a guest judge on one episode of Top Chef: Texas, competed on the Next Iron Chef, and won a Food and Wine Best New Chef award … but Reef was really disappointing start to finish. The snapper in the snapper carpaccio was sliced too thickly and was very tough in parts, without enough of the tangy grapefruit agrodolce to go around. The redfish in that entree was very high-quality, but way too mildly flavored and in desperate need of a hit of acid. (Aren’t we all, though?) Even the dessert, a key lime tart with toasted meringue and fresh raspberries, was overdone – the meringue was smeared on the plate and then browned, so eating it with the tart, which is kind of the entire point of having it on the plate, was extremely difficult. I had been looking forward to this meal for a while, but every step of it was a letdown.