The Starr organization wasn't exactly reinventing pizza here. In fact, it was borrowing and, in the case of the estimable pistachio pie (with slivered sweet red onion and fontina), flat-out lifting, some road-tested pizza tricks of the trade.
But it was starting from scratch in the sense that each element (the dough, the cheese, the olives) was having to prove itself; every pizza variable reapplying for its job.
The second batch of buffalo mozzarella was leaking way too much water, said culinary director Chris Painter. (Was it the brand?) Were the Gaeta olives on the 12-inch Oliva Nera, $13, too sharp? Should they be switched out for milder Ligurians? It still wasn't clear, even on Sunday, whether cow's milk or sheep's milk ricotta was going to make the cut on one pie. (But it was clear the Abruzzi sausage had edged out the original fenneled Sicilian that first topped the spicy-pesto sausage pie, $15.)
You can research and report and compile pizza dossiers. But then comes reality pizza-making: Every detail counts. The spin of the dough. The humidity. The heat. Take the oven: It's a Texas import, a Renato, the logo "Stella" custom-tiled into the cracked-stone dome. It's the favorite of the storied Chris Bianco, the Phoenix pizzaiolo who has lines outside 45 minutes long before he opens the doors. (That's his pistachio pie at Stella, its secret apparently out of the bag.)
But an oven is a living thing. Stella's is fed with split white oak, ash, and apple, sawdust handy if a heat burst is needed (though the deck was staying at an optimal 700 degrees after a 60-pizza hour).
On a marathon pizza tour last summer Starr, his vice president for operations Bradlee Bartram, and others witnessed the result of an oven deck that had cooled down - a puffy, doughy, chewy crust at Una Pizza Napoletana, the self-important ("Where was the joy?!" cried Starr manager Al Lucas) pizzeria on New York's East Side.
Other echoes from the June pizzaland junket were in evidence. The subway-tiled kitchen recalled Pepe's, the New Haven shrine to the fresh-shucked-clam pie. (There's a clam pie here, too, the Vongole, though at Stella the fresh clams are oven-roasted to pop them open, then chopped with guanciale, the salty hog jowl.)
Watching the hand-grating of the Parmesan on individual pies, you might have been at Lucali's, the tour favorite on Henry Street in Brooklyn. Sitting at Stella's marble counter felt a lot like sitting at Franny's, the hip Park Slope pizzeria.
So it went, the new chef Shane Solomon shoveling his newbies from the forge - fair pizzas (a little runny toward the center), better pizzas, knockout pizzas when he nailed them, graced with some of the thinnest, lightest, brightest, crispiest crust to be found not merely in Philadelphia, but in a good slice of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, and far beyond.
You could see them (taste them) evolve: The first in a flight of pistachio pies was limp in the crust, Starr concluded. The second burdened with too many onions. The third! Ah, it all came quite astonishingly together - crackling crispness, a balance of ingredients, doneness (the ground nuts weren't over-toasted).
Pizzeria Stella is an airy, 85-seat pizzeria, modest and unself-important. There are long tables of seamed Brazilian walnut reclaimed from the boardwalk in Coney Island. And a short list of wine and beer (glasses of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, $5.50; Birra Moretti, $6).
This is not a moody, overproduced space. Those days are over. Stella is economical (lined with basket-bottomed Chianti bottles), accessible (tuna and white bean, broccoli rabe, grilled radicchio), and open late (until 11 weekdays; midnight Friday and Saturday).
The next challenge? "Consistency under fire," Bartram said. "Keeping [the pies] appropriately decadent, but not all wet and runny."
Pie after pie after pie after pie after pie.
2d and Lombard Streets
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@ phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.