Osteria Stella offers a true Northern Italian dining experience
From the bustling sidewalk of Jackson Avenue in Old Town, stepping into the dimly lit and elegantly designed interior of Osteria Stella feels like stepping into another era. It’s a contrast to the bright decor of Brother Wolf, its neighboring cocktail bar. “I wanted to create a stark contrast between the two,” says co-owner Jessica Thompson, who also created speakeasy Peter Kern Library. “I wanted the Osteria Stella to be beautiful, warm, comfortable and disarming.”
“It’s romantic and intimate,” confirms sommelier Brad Poyner, as he demonstrates the technique for folding black napkins into pinks. “Some newer Italian restaurants use a darker, more dramatic approach to set them apart from traditional white-tablecloth, red-sauce venues. We’re not trying to be pretentious, just a different downtown location for a date or special occasion. The space is indeed intimate and inviting, with cabins for four on one side and bench seating for two on the other. An eclectic collection of Italian tole chandeliers provide pleasant, diffused light.
Everything at Osteria Stella has a story, starting with its name. Osteria is Italian for a place that serves wine and simple food. Stella is the two-year-old daughter of owners Jessica and Aaron Thompson. Aaron, dapper in a tan suit the night we visited, loves telling stories, including his courtship with Jessica, which began when he was a bar manager at Sapphire.
“She was a client,” he laughs. ‘We didn’t love each other’ He had graduated from UT in 2007 with a history degree. A bartender at Sapphire, he fell in love with the idea of owning a restaurant and, before too long, with Jessica. “On our first trip to Europe, I asked Jessica to marry me.” He knelt atop the 1,000ft cliffs of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. Chef de cuisine Greg Sutton worked for eight years at Blackberry Farm under Chef Joseph Lenn, then later at Knox Mason. He is delighted to continue this chef-led tradition.
We started our meal with a glass (or two) of Bianca Vigna Prosecco, the first of Poyner’s suggested wine pairings. We never miss an opportunity to taste polpettines, these small meatballs cooked in wine or broth and served as a main course. Unlike Americans, Italians don’t put meatballs on pasta – these delicious beef and pork meatballs are served as a savory appetizer and are, unsurprisingly, a best-seller. The Arancino (rice balls) made with risotto rice, peas, mozzarella and marinated onions perfectly complement the Polpette. We complemented our starters with a small plate of soft and chewy Mozzarella di Bufala con Zucca, with winter squash, local greens and charred lemon honey.
Our Primi course started with a delicious Sauvignon Blanc, the Venezia Giulia IGT 2018, complementing the Bucatini all’ Amatriciana, a deliciously tasty dish made with guanciale, tomatoes and Pecorino Romano.
The lasagna is prepared Milanese style, with bechamel and Bolognese sauces. If you’ve never made lasagna this way, you’ll never look at ricotta and red sauce made the same way again. Don’t miss the light and fluffy Gnocchi Burro e Salvia in a butter, sage and parmesan sauce. We asked chef Greg his secret: how were they so delicate? “No eggs,” he winked.
Italian food lovers will be delighted to see ossobuco on the menu. Ossobuco means “bone with a hole,” and this cross-cut veal shank is braised until tender with vegetables, white wine, and broth. It is served the traditional way, with gremolata, a green sauce of chopped parsley, lemon and garlic.
There’s nothing quite like a good Montepulciano, and the 2019 Reale Abruzzo with its powerful tannins and robust aroma held up well against the ossobuco. Its deep color with peppery and spicy notes gives this wine its “rustic” description.
Branzino, a mild white fish, is popular in Italian cuisine and usually roasted whole and served with lemon. This preparation is accompanied by cannellini beans, carrots and pine nuts, which perfectly highlight the sweet and flaky flesh of the fish. Italians love chicken, and Pollo al Marsala is no exception. This tender chicken is sautéed in butter, mushrooms, Marsala wine and “sott olio”, a preservation method meaning “under oil” which preserves delicate vegetables such as artichokes, olives, asparagus and mushrooms in extra virgin olive oil.
If you’re looking for something light for dessert, Vanilla Panna Cotta with Fruit Coulis (a thick fruit sauce) is airy and refreshing. For ice cream lovers, the Affogato (meaning drowned) al Caffe combines a lovely vanilla ice cream with an espresso. It was hard to pick a favorite between the cannoli, one with ricotta and pistachio and the other hot chocolate and dreamy almonds. (Spoiler alert: the pistachio was amazing.) Stella’s twist on the classic tiramisu, a confection of mascarpone cheese, cookies, espresso and cocoa, adds a bit of Marsala, a wonderful twist. “Tira mi su” is a phrase in the Venetian dialect that translates to “pick me up,” and this treat, paired with an after-dinner coffee, did just that.