Stella Blu featured in this week’s Montgomery County Ticket!

Posted on Thursday, April 30, 2009

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Stella Blu’s executive chef, Ralph Pallarino.

By Frank D. Quattrone

Although it hardly seemed critical, during the fall season 2007, one of Montgomery County’s most popular restaurants decided to do a makeover. When it reopened in December of that year, the face of Stella Blu had changed in several ways.

Gone were the tiny “Star Bar” and the silver-blue wallpaper. In were an expanded contemporary bar with a dozen high swivel stools and big-screen TV — and silvery swirls on a creamy wall that lightened the mood considerably. Delicate chandeliers with lovely teardrop fixtures add a soft touch.

Gone, too, was the predominantly Italian menu, although its most salient features and its chef’s uncanny twists on the mundane would be retained. When the executive chef/owner is as talented as Ralph Pallarino, you always trust the hot hand.

So say his partners, co-owners Marianne Gere and Kim Strengari, who recognized Pallarino’s genius in the kitchen just two weeks after hiring him when the restaurant opened eight years ago. Inviting him to be their partner proved their business acumen once again, as they ran a successful cleaning business for years as well as the Central Bar & Grill and Bella Luna in Bryn Mawr, the latter one of the most respected restaurants on the Main Line.

Together, five years ago, they also opened the cozy and inviting Gypsy Saloon just a half a block away from Stella Blu.

As a triumvirate, they have been unstoppable, splitting their time between the two sister restaurants. The gregarious Strengari, whose long, curly locks have provided the inspiration for Gypsy Saloon’s logo, loves to mingle and work the front of the house. Gere, who also serves as hostess, takes care of the finances and accounting. Pallarino, a self-taught chef who began cooking at the age of 10, thrives on creating exciting cuisine.

With its new menu launched last week, Stella Blu took another step in replicating a downtown dining experience in a comfortable neighborhood setting. Gere asks, “Why all the changes? To reinvent ourselves, to keep it fresh. You’ll notice that we’ve replaced our grill menu items with small plates, which are very popular now.”

Chef Pallarino is excited about the new menu — for his guests as well as himself. “When I look at a menu,” he says, “the appetizers are usually more interesting than the entrées. I take what could be large plates and scale them down. That gives our guests the ability to have not one but two or three great dishes.

“Who wouldn’t enjoy a 3-ounce piece of halibut as a small plate, or two or three great scallops? Why not?” he asks, rhetorically. “We give our guests the tools to build their own meal. So a couple can order six interesting items for their meal rather than two entrées and be perfectly filled.

“Where else will you find Lump Crabmeat Risotto [made in a sweet onion broth with wild mushroom marmalade, $14] as a small plate, or half-orders of pasta?”

If he’s referring to his Lobster and Fresh Porcini Mushrooms ($14), tossed with butter, black pepper and fettuccine (one of his personal favorites), one can see his point. Another of his preferred dishes on the Small Plates menu is Wild Mushroom Ravioli ($11) in a walnut cream sauce with pecorino Romano cheese.

While we’re discussing favorites, be sure to try the chef’s exquisite Escarole with White Bean Soup ($5), a recipe adapted from one created by the chef’s beloved grandmother, who, with his mother, often invited him into the kitchen to learn the fundamentals of cooking.

A longtime specialty of the house — from the days when Stella Blu was more of an upscale Italian — is Meatballs ($6), a side dish topped with shaved Parmesan cheese. Believe it or not, according to Marianne Gere, this excellent interpretation of a classic neighborhood Italian dish comes from her own mother, who is Polish!

Gere describes the new menu as “contemporary, with Italian flair.”

That works for me.

Look at the salads, for example. You can order Thai Peekytoe Crab Salad ($12) with Chinese cucumbers, tomatoes, lime and chilies; Veal Cutlets ($15) breaded and pan-fried with shaved Parmesan cheese over watercress salad tossed in a lemon caper vinaigrette; or Grilled Calamari ($11) with capers, olives, fennel and heirloom tomatoes topped with a lemon vinaigrette.

The Small Plates also include Grilled Asparagus ($10) with roasted red peppers, shaved Parmesan cheese and poached egg, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil; Grilled Baby Octopus ($14) with chorizo sausage, caramelized onions and saffron potatoes; three Mini Burgers ($10), topped with aged white cheddar and served with Chinese mustard, chipotle ketchup and house-made Russian dressing; and Littleneck Clams ($14) with crispy ground pork, green chilies, garlic and scallions with a touch of sweet soy sauce.

Quite the eclectic mix.

And when is the last time you had a grilled Ahi Tuna Pizza ($15), topped with pickled jalapeño peppers, cucumber, micro greens and citrus wasabi aioli?

The Large Plates at Stella Blu are no slouches either! Those who choose the more conventional approach to dining can order the likes of Lobster Ravioli ($25), stuffed with jumbo lump crabmeat, hot Italian sausage, asparagus and roasted red peppers in a spicy Parmesan cream sauce; Chicken Bella Luna ($18), chicken breast sautéed with chopped tomatoes, garlic, mushrooms and hot cherry peppers; Salmon “Kung Pao Style” ($22), prepared with peanuts, carrots, zucchini, celery and red pepper in a spicy brown sauce with rice; and the chef’s “Best of Philly” award-winning Lobster “Mac & Cheese” ($26), an arresting marriage of Asiago, Parmesan and goat cheese with Maine lobster.

Pallarino is ably assisted by longtime sous-chef Sauthana Sihamountry.

Desserts, which include Chocolate Ganache Cake, Banana Peanut Butter Fluff-a-Nutter, Banana Chocolate Chip Cake, Key Lime Pie, Boston Cream Pie, White Chocolate Mint Cheese Cake and Strawberry Ladyfinger Cake, are prepared for Stella Blu by Delightful Desserts in West Chester.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, the restaurant also lures plenty of guests from the neighborhood and beyond with its special Italian Delights. The meal begins with garlic bread and your choice of White Bean & Escarole Soup or house salad, followed by your choice of entrée. The selections include Spaghetti and Mama Mary’s Meatballs ($14) in the chef’s slow-cooked gravy; Mussels Fra Diavolo ($16); Potato Gnocchi ($16) with sweet sausage and broccoli rabe aioli; Salmon Puttanesca ($20); and Shrimp Scampi over Linguine ($19).

From Monday through Friday during Happy Hour (5 to 7 p.m.), all Small Plates are half price.

Chef Pallarino says he notices that more and more younger guests have discovered Stella Blu since the renovations, and that many guests enjoy eating at the bar or at one of the two tall tables with their tall swivel chairs just opposite the bar.

Stella Blu is livelier and more eclectic than ever, offering the kind of menus you rarely find outside Center City (including the Bella Luna Pizza Kitchen menu during Friday lunch), but with the warmth and ambiance only a modestly upscale neighborhood restaurant can provide.

Stella Blu
116 Ford St.
West Conshohocken, PA 19428
Phone: 610-825-7060
www.stellablurestaurant.com

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