[South Philadelphia] Stina Pizzeria

I had dinner here last night and thought it was great. Great enough that I’m going to write a pretty purple review. That’s not great. But I want to communicate why this place is worth visiting, since I haven’t heard much about it from other sources.

As far as pedigree goes, the main chef/co-owner is Bobby Saritsoglou (formerly at Opa and other places), and the other co-owner is his wife/restaurant namesake Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou, a Philly Aids Thrift co-founder who’s also responsible for the charming/odd interior. It’s a small place with maybe 24 seats in what might be called west Passyunk.

The two of us got six things: four mezze (small plates), a pizza, and dessert.

Mezze 1: kefta kebab with saffron labneh and tabbouleh
Mezze 2: roasted cauliflower with tahini, baharat, and chermoula
Mezze 3: borek with kashkaval, honey, sesame, and pickled plum
Mezze 4: roasted potatoes with smoked cipollini and turmeric aioli

I was impressed by the balance of each dish. Borek and honey sounds cloying and overly decadent, but that pickled plum kept it tethered away from the farther (and less tasty) reaches of greasy sweetness. Same deal with the roasted cauliflower. Well-caramelized cauliflower with a salty fatty sauce has its place, but I was happy to get a sizable chunk of head, some crisp leaves still attached, whose outer stalks had plenty of vegetal crunch left. That made the rich tahini sauce and zippy chermoula even more welcome. Beef and saffron labneh sounds like a weird clash of flavors, but the tang of labneh bridges the iron taste of beef and the metallic hay quality of saffron. Potatoes and onions? Nice but ostensibly boring, except the turmeric takes it in a south Asian direction, and scattered basil leaves add a savory and fresh quality. It sounds like bad fusion, except it’s good.

We also got a margherita pizza. On this topic I don’t have as much to say, because I’m not a pizza aficionado, and I’ve read enough to know many such people exist. But I think I can at least identify bad pizza: this is not bad pizza, and is possibly much more. I will leave it to someone else to add the details.

Dessert was an enormous slice of chocolate layer cake with a tahini buttercream frosting. Also scattered around the plate were, I think: a couple of meringues, salted caramel, what might have been called “chocolate soil” a few years ago, a balsamic reduction, and a brown butter tasting version of what I’m guessing is “air”, the powdery substance that almost instantly disappears when it hits your tongue, leaving a split second of flavor on its way. This last detail might provoke skepticism in people who’ve had enough of molecular gastronomy for its own sake, but I interpreted it differently, and it dovetails with my whole impression of the restaurant, which is:

this is food from somebody who has cooked enough to have a good idea of what he does and does not want to make, and who has cooked enough to execute the stuff he wants to make while keeping both feet on the ground (pre-tip total: $54; unlike a lot of “nice” cooking, there doesn’t seem to be a bunch of butter snuck into everything, so I felt full but not gluttonous), and who has cooked for a short enough amount of time that he’s still doing stuff because it’s cool and fun (see: that cake, which was described to us as just “chocolate layer cake with tahini buttercream”, so he’s clearly not doing it for the shine).

I didn’t even mention the section of the menu we missed, devoted to pan-mediterranean pastas and pides, which must be at least as good as their pizzas. I look forward to going back and trying those. But anyway, places in this sweet spot of relatively inexpensive, trying hard, and doing cool things are not that common, so you should visit this restaurant.

3 Likes

Terrific review. Thank you for posting.

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