Focaccia on the Frontier

North Toward Rome

Stelline Pastaria

2501 Parmer Lane, Suite 550, 339-8823
Open Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm;
Friday & Saturday, 11am -11pm

I suppose that everyone's concept of Austin is the city as it was when they first came to it. In my mind, Austin is a city that extends from Ben White Boulevard on the South to Anderson Lane on the North to Lake Austin on the West and Pleasant Valley on the East - an area wherein I can identify all the telephone exchanges by neighborhood. Clarksville native Andrew Lee defines his hometown in relatively the same way; yet, he is the proud co-owner of Stelline Pastaria, a pleasant family restaurant snugly tucked into the corner of a large shopping center at the busy intersection of the MoPac access road and Parmer Lane, in what is very surely Austin. Lee and his partner, chef Harvey Harris, sometimes refer to the restaurant's neighborhood as "the frontier." And the gently rolling pastureland between Austin and the tiny hamlets of Pflugerville and Round Rock was just exactly that only a few short years ago. Today, the neighborhood still has a few pastoral patches, but that is changing rapidly. Austin's burgeoning high-tech businesses continue to build in the area, and developers are following suit, providing housing developments and shopping malls to accommodate the new arrivals who come to staff them. Lee and Harris have one of the few upscale, sit-down family restaurants in the immediate area. Lunchtime at Stelline is populated with many high-tech business types, and the restaurant evidently has a good, solid reputation in the chat on the Net.

Returning to Austin from parts North, a friend and I stopped in at Stelline for lunch recently and enjoyed a very satisfying meal. We started with an appetizers: Carciofini Fritti ($4.95), perfectly fried artichoke hearts in a light, crisp batter flecked with black pepper that are paired with a divinely astringent, fresh lime/garlic aioli; and Focaccia Con Salmone ($4.25), grilled, fresh flatbred with a tasty topping of thin strips of smoked salmon, tangy Texas goat cheese, red onions, and capers. The appetizer portions here are very generous - plenty enough for two people to split - which makes them an incredible bargain considering the reasonable prices.

The Stelline lunch menu features many other bargains. My friend chose the Zuppa E Caesar ($4.95), a soup of the day and Caesar salad combo that included my favorite Stelline dish so far. The fennel, white bean, and sausage soup is definitely in the running for the best bowl of soup I've tasted this year. The earthy peasant dish is a rich, fennel-scented broth full of cannelli beans, carrots, and plenty of hearty sausage; it's simply marvelous.

Since eggplant is something I love but rarely cook at home, I chose Focaccia con Melanzane ($5.75), excellent grilled eggplant with roasted peppers, caramelized onions and goat cheese on herbed focaccia from the Panini (sandwich) section of the menu. The hefty sandwich was served with a large order of roasted potatoes, a very filling lunch. So filling, in fact, that dessert was entirely out of the question. Returning here for lunch is definitely on my agenda.

The dinner hour at Stelline is populated with a few couples and a few families, and the people with the screaming two-year-old thankfully left pretty soon after we arrived. A parent himself, chef Harvey Harris has a kids' menu available for the asking, and the simple, child-pleasing dishes have been approved by his own children. The grown-up dinner menu is also value-priced, which should be another incentive for family dining. There are several delightful pasta dishes in the range of $5.25 to $10.95, with vegetarian, chicken, sausage, and seafood choices paired with a variety of sauces. There are a few pizzas, too, in the $6-7 range, plus a fine selection of entrees.

We began this meal with an order of Calamari Fritti ($3.95), a large platter of lightly fried, small pieces of octopus served with a steaming hot bowl of marinara. After such a large portion of calamari, my friend opted for a large Caesar Salad ($3.95) for her entree. While she enjoyed her salad, we concluded that it could have used a more dynamic or assertive dressing to complement the crisp greens and garlic croutons. I ordered the Maiale Affumicato ($10.95), tender medallions of smoked pork tenderloin in a marsala wine sauce with sun-dried cherries, roasted garlic, a hint of molasses, and cracked red chili. The pork was paired with garlic, mashed potatoes, and the vegetable of the day, perfectly sautéed carrot matchsticks. Overall, this was a very pleasing dish, although I honestly detected no hint of red chili in the sauce; it could have used that interesting counterpoint. The homey mashers could have used a little more garlic for my taste, as well.

Determined to sample desserts this trip, I chose the Cinnamon-Espresso Gelato ($3.95) with homemade biscotti and Cappuccino ($2.50). The gelato was exquisite - the cinnamon and coffee flavors well-matched in a dreamy confection that managed to be both light and creamy at the same time. The desserts are made in-house, and if the gelato is any indication, the other selections should be stellar, too.

Chef Harris honed his considerable Italian cooking skills in a five-year stint at Reed Clemmons' popular downtown eatery, Mezzaluna. At his own restaurant, Harris has tailored the menu and the price range to his new neighborhood; because the restaurant is still in its infancy, he is still developing just the right mix of dishes to attract both the business diners and the families in his area. Stelline's interior is done in black, white, and grey, all angles and sleek, shiny surfaces. Especially impressive are the wall sconces, interesting metal sculptures with light streaming out of star cutouts. The service staff is well-informed and eager to please.

The residents of Austin's northern high-tech frontier are very lucky to have a restaurant the quality of Stelline so close at hand. Considering the quality of the food and the reasonable prices, Stelline is worth a trip from anywhere in the city for its very own sake.

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