I heard a lot about the vision for Stanza, but I missed both “soft” opening nights, a kind of dress rehearsal when press and locals try the food free of charge while the restaurant works to get the kinks out of the kitchen line and the service staff.
I heard—from guests and restaurant staff—that there were, indeed, a lot of kinks on those nights.
But last night, when I dined there, the bumps were gone.
Yes, they spotted me, so service was over-the-top gracious, undoubtedly friendlier and more solicitous than received by other diners.
But restaurant critics are seldom successfully anonymous these days and most of them (Jonathon Gold of the LATimes, Leslie Brenner of the Dallas Morning News, John Mariani of everywhere) no longer even try to be. That’s the result of a combination of factors: The Internet that has made celebrities of ordinary people, shrinking budgets at publications that prohibit paying dedicated restaurant critics, and, maybe, the ultimate silliness of it all. All those wigs and hats.
At any rate, after 35 years of reviewing, I’ve learned a few things: Chefs either can or cannot produce superior food. If they can, they try to do it for every customer, not just the celebs and writers. It’s surprising even to me how often I am served cold pasta or even rancid food when the restaurant knows I am a food writer. Yes, it actually happens.
Stanza was built around its bar—by leaving the bar at Faustina nearly intact, the structure qualified as a remodel instead of new construction—and anyone who was familiar with that bar will feel at home here, although the menu has been utterly changed by beverage manager Jim Santangelo and cocktail designer Amy Eldredge. The wine list is friendly, with lots of by the glass and flight options and a broad range of prices. Naturally, it focuses on Italian wines and varietals. Prosecco and negronis for all!
At the table, we ate house-made burrata with a beautiful fava bean relish, mussels cooked with prosecco and calabrese sausage with grilled lemons, a round loaf of house-made bread (to be used for sandwiches when Stanza opens for lunch)
and a version of Caesar salad. I’ve almost given up on the anchovy battle, but it does seem odd to me when they are listed as “optional” on a Caesar salad—I feel they’re definitive. Then again, so are eggs, and the dressing on this putative Caesar was called a mustard vinaigrette. In other words, this wasn’t a Caesar salad at all. But it is a good salad of romaine hearts when you order it with anchovies; even garnished with a few whole fish so the umami was loud and clear.
Carrot torchio (torch-shaped pasta) with shaved purple carrot and rabbit braised in milk and shredded in a light sauce. Of course, there’s a tongue in cheek joke here about bunny rabbits and carrots (what’s up, doc?) but there’s sound culinary sense too—the gentleness of the milk braise and the sweetness of the carrot puree in the pasta dough melded to make this a soothing dish, just barely spiked with pickled fennel.
If you order it, note that the stew-like rabbit is at the bottom, so be sure to stir it up. When chef Phelix Gardner was at Pago, he served a lamb and pasta dish I will never forget—mint leaves encased in pasta served with a lamb ragu. To my delight, he has revamped this dish for Stanza. Instead of whole leaves, he makes pappardelle with a mint puree and tops the broad noodles with lamb sugo—and if there’s a definitive difference between ragu and sugo, someone please enlighten me. Castelvetrano olives provided tart contrast and grated pecorino underscored the sheepy (sheepish?) sweetness. The sauce, unfortunately, verged on too salty.
Our third dish was agnolotti, the little pillows stuffed with pea puree and ricotta and served with Gulf shrimp and asparagus tips. The whole flavor was a bright spring green.
All the pastas are made in-house, and Gardner takes creative advantage of that, meaning that the pasta dishes are totally Italian in spirit but not classically Italian. You can tell there’s a real palate in the kitchen.
In fact, there are two—to my surprise, David Bible, whose cooking I have always admired, is Gardner’s chef de cuisine.
Gardner delivered one dish that’s on the menu but is still being tweaked. (This is where a food writer has an advantage over a lay diner.) Big elbows of seaweed pasta nested clams bathed in a white wine broth with tiny dice of pancetta and pickled fresno chilies. The three of us drank the broth with our spoons when the clams and pasta were gone. On the printed menu, this dish is listed as being made with bucatini, but the hollow curves of the elbows served as little cups for the savory broth—much better.
We didn’t eat a classical Italian meal, either. We stopped with pasta as our main course moscato and grappa for dessert. We’ll have to go back to see if Stanza’s bistecca fiorentina ($85) is as good as the one we had in Florence.