Stellina Pasta Café is perfectly delicious from start to finish.

(Now give us a bite of your sandwich.)

Apr 4, 2007 at 4:00 am
The "South Side Smoke" at Stellina Pasta Café is both a sandwich and a marvel of architecture, a great mass of pulled pork, caramelized onion and creamy, still-melting smoked Gouda that somehow holds together between slices of fresh ciabatta until the moment you try to pick it up. If you don't order it yourself, be sure someone with you does. It's an easy target, too plump to be snatched away from marauding forks.

The pork has a gentle, autumnal sweetness — a little breeze of brown sugar — and is so luscious you might consider visiting a cardiologist immediately after finishing it. But chef Jamey Tochtrop told me the pork shoulder he gets from Cape Girardeau's Hinkebein Hills Farm is more muscular than commercially raised pork. He had to fiddle around with his recipe to account for the difference; he settled on braising the pork for five-and-a-half hours and then smoking it over hickory and a little applewood for two-and-a-half more.

Odd, I know, to begin discussing a restaurant called Stellina Pasta Café with anything but the excellent, freshly made pasta, but I'm smitten with the "South Side Smoke" — and not only because of my perhaps-unhealthy obsession with pork. It's the attention to detail that impresses me: the quality of the meat, the calibrated recipe, how the slight tang of sea salt in the ciabatta contrasts the savory-sweet combinations of pig, smoke, cheese and onion.

Although Jamey and Lisa Tochtrop opened Stellina Pasta Café just three months ago, the husband-and-wife team may be familiar to local foodies: Stellina Pasta has been available at the Central West End and Clayton farmers markets for two years now.

The restaurant is wedged into an old commercial strip along Watson Road, several blocks south of Arsenal. It's a narrow space, seating about two dozen, but it's charming. Its ambience is classier than a coffee shop, but not as intimate as a candlelit neighborhood bistro. A fresh-cut flower sits in a little glass of water on each table.

There are a few seats at a counter along the front window; the tables are arranged parallel to a retail case featuring Lisa Tochtrop's desserts, a small selection of cheeses and fresh pasta for you to take home and cook yourself — though once you've tried one of Jamey Tochtrop's dishes, this may strike you as an unnecessary extra step.

Lisa says the menu is based on simple principles: "Do we like to eat it? Is it good enough to serve your mother?"

Three pasta dishes are offered each day. The specifics change — over three visits I didn't see the exact same dish twice — but there is always a lasagna, a long-cut pasta (fettuccine, on my visits) and a stuffed pasta. According to the menu, the pastas are made with "only the finest 100% organic ingredients available on the market." "Finest" is subjective, of course, and there's a lively debate these days about what, if anything, "organic" actually means. Here's what I think: The pasta at Stellina Pasta Café is awesome.

If you've never had fresh pasta or haven't had it in some time, the first bite might shock you. The surface is smooth, but rather than dried pasta's al dente bite, your teeth meet a yielding — but emphatically not mushy — softness. Also, since fresh pasta would drown under the thick sauces you pour over, say, spaghetti and meatballs, you often eat it with lighter sauces that let you actually taste the pasta.

"You're never really sure why fresh pasta is better," says Jamey Tochtrop, "but once you have it, it's hard to go back to dried."

On my first visit, the lasagna featured chicken, roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts. This wasn't a piece from a larger lasagna, but an individual bowl, roughly the same size as one of those personal pan pizzas at Pizza Hut. The noodles, though soft, stood up to the generous helping of cheese — mozzarella or fontina or a blend of both, smooth and nutty — and the peppers and artichokes provided a nice balance of sweet and sharp. In truth, so good were these other elements the chicken was hardly distinctive, more body than flavor.

On my next visit, I opted for the long-cut pasta dish, semolina fettuccine in a puttanesca "sauce" with shrimp. Again, this wasn't a conventional sauce so much as a convocation of capers and black and green olives, sharp and spicy. The shrimp, medium-size, had a slightly smoky flavor.

I returned a third and final time, intending to try the stuffed pasta, but it must have sold out already — it was late — so instead I tried the day's long-cut pasta, fettuccine, shrimp, roasted mushrooms and prosciutto tossed in olive oil, garlic and butter. Here you could really feel the difference fresh pasta offers, the oil letting each strand separate from the others, the butter giving each creamy weight. The shrimp were the same as in the other fettuccine dish, and the roasted mushrooms were fine by themselves, but neither really benefited from being together in the same dish.

(Note: The cost of each pasta dish depends on its specific ingredients. The pastas I tried ranged from $9 to $11.)

There are six sandwiches on the menu, including the "South Side Smoke." As regular readers know, I must order anything that uses two (or more) pork products. The "Hog Wild" offers shaved ham and bacon as well as thin, crisp slices of Granny Smith apple, white cheddar and a bright, somewhat spicy mustard grilled panini-style. Although the ham made up the bulk of the sandwich, I was taken with the interplay in flavors and textures between the bacon, apple slices and mustard. The "il Capo" includes both prosciutto and coppa. However, the substantial helping of garlicky roast beef, accented by fontina cheese and a little tapenade, was the dominant flavor here.

Sandwiches come with chips, homemade potato salad or (during my visits) a salad of mandarin oranges and chilled steamed broccoli lightly dressed with sesame oil. I liked this last salad very much, and I also enjoyed the house salad, which offered a few welcome variations from your usual, greens-heavy house salad: garbanzo beans, beets, very good feta cheese and sunflower seeds.

From Lisa Tochtrop's selection of desserts, I tried the chocolate-peanut butter bombe, a decadent scoop of Bavarian chocolate mousse with peanut butter served atop devil's food cake, all of it coated with a rich chocolate ganache.

Lisa tells me that Stellina Pasta Café will soon institute table service. The restaurant also just received its liquor license, and she envisions a small list, ideally featuring at least one Missouri and one organic wine, as well as a few beers. Outdoor seating is also on the way, and a spring evening spent in this quiet neighborhood, sipping wine and enjoying fresh pasta, promises to be time well spent.

Should you happen to order the South Side Smoke, be on guard. You're more vulnerable outside. If anyone walking past suddenly veers toward your table, calmly meet his wide-eyed stare and say, firmly, "No."

I'll back away slowly, my hands where you can see them.

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