Even though NE 23rd Street is one of the most historical streets in Oklahoma City, many locals tend to forget that it’s also home to some of the most grassroots and homegrown eateries in town, the best having a specific focus on soul food, barbecue and old-fashioned Southern cooking. NE 23rd Street restaurants are OKC’s culinary history all in a few blocks and really should be revered as such.
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Stella Modern Italian Cuisine
1201 N. Walker
What works: fancy Italian cuisine, tasty pizza combinations
What needs work: Service can be spotty.
Tips: Reservations are not mandatory, but they are helpful.
When a menu gets fancy, it can throw a guy.
I’ll be the first to admit that my experience with Italian food as a kid was pretty much jarred marinara sauce, ground beef and noodles. Even now, when somebody says Italian food, I get a clear image of spaghetti and meatballs.
So when somebody mentions braised beef short rib ragoût in a spicy pomodoro sauce over rigatoni, I panic a little.
My apologies to the wait staff at Stella if it had to serve a man who looked like he was about to have a heart attack and was stammering, “You, uh ... got any of them ketchup noodles?”
No, Stella doesn’t have “ketchup noodles.” What it does have is a selection of pretty nice sandwiches, pastas and appetizers that are much friendlier to the palate than the descriptions are to my Podunk pronunciation skills.
The braised short rib with pomodoro ($12 lunch, $18 dinner) is actually the most traditional dish on the menu, for those who like their sauces red. The short rib is tender and sweet. Mix it into the sauce, and the threads come apart, infusing every bite with a creamy richness. The pomodoro has a nice heat to it, as well. Ask for extra bread. You will be wiping the bowl clean.
If you’re looking for something lighter, the shrimp with garlic and pomodoro over pappardelle noodles ($13 lunch, $19 dinner) has more of the crisp bite of well-cooked shrimp with fatter, thicker pappardelle soaking up the sauce.
Having been to Stella a few times, I was happy to find that its pizzas have improved since the restaurant’s early days. I tried and loved the capicola, oven-roasted egg and caramelized onion pizza ($13), especially when I got to break the yolks and spread it from slice to slice.
Capicola is a spicy ham that, were I in charge of the world, would replace regular ham in all instances. The egg adds a richness to the sticky sweetness of the onions. Underneath, the crust is crisp with a slight chew. Enough to hold up the toppings, but wise enough to let the flavors do the talking.
For those who enjoy vegetables — anybody? — try the grilled seasonal vegetables with pesto ($8). Asparagus, carrots, cauliflower and a few other rotating cast members are seasoned and grilled to sweetness with pesto on the side for dipping. Very tasty and probably healthy, if that’s your thing.
I think lentils are great, and I don’t think enough restaurants are cooking them. Stella does, thank goodness. Its lentil and goat cheese salad ($10) is magnificent. The golden balsamic vinaigrette tied it all together. A little earthy, a little sweet and with some nice tart notes, this makes a good entree for a normal person. I like it as an appetizer.
Oh, and the grilled polenta cakes with mushroom ragoût were, sincerely, wonderful. But they’re off the menu now, making way for the new spring items (including a polenta terrine for $11, which is next on my list to try).
That’s the thing at Stella — sometimes you find something you love, and it changes. I suppose you could cry and kick the dirt and pout about it, or you could view it as an opportunity. Surely the people who made a dish you loved can come up with something else to delight your taste buds. After all, that’s kind of what restaurants do.
Editor’s note: Please keep in mind that Stella’s menu is seasonal and is updated often.