As we creep into the new year, the topic at hand is a not-so-new restaurant. My first visit to Stanza Italian Bistro & Wine Bar was in April of 2016. So, given that it's a significant eatery in our city, why am I just now getting around to reviewing it? Well, if the court will allow me a brief sidebar, I'll explain, and hopefully shed a little light into this business of reviewing restaurants.
Many restaurants—especially bigger ones with large marketing and research budgets—host what are called "soft openings," which are invite-only affairs that occur prior to a restaurant's public opening. It's a chance for staff to go through dry-runs, for the kitchen to (hopefully) work out kinks, and for everyone to get some practice before paying customers arrive. The food, and sometimes beverages, are normally comped or discounted by the restaurant.
My first Stanza visit—the one back in April—was during a soft opening. Now, due in part to the prevalence of food blogging and social media, it has become fairly common practice for food writers to review restaurants based on soft openings. The articles tend to have titles like "First Bite," "Sneak Peek" or "First Look." Simply put, I think this practice is a bit disingenuous. For the most part, these "first looks" really are reviews, although they're sort of not. They are rarely critical, which can mislead readers into thinking every restaurant is excellent. These puff pieces disconnect the writer from any sort of responsibility or risk; they are essentially free ads for free meals. I simply can't see any way to justify a restaurant review based on a dining experience with a selected guest list, featuring free food and drink, prior to the restaurant's public opening.
But, I also get that in our fast-paced, über-click media world, food writers—just like legit news reporters—want to get the scoop. Everyone wants to be the first to give a shout-out to the chic new ramen bar or latest vegan, raw food restaurant. I can only control how I approach doing my own restaurant reviews, but I can tell you that you never have, and never will, read a review here based solely on a media dinner or soft opening. As far as I'm concerned, it's just not right.
That brings me back to Stanza, and why you're only reading about it here now. Since I wasn't going to review a soft opening, I returned a couple of months later. Then, just as I was about to write a review, chef Phelix Gardner—who was opening chef at Stanza—moved over to its sister restaurant, Current Fish & Oyster. So, I put the kibosh on that review, knowing that the menu was likely to change.
Enter the very talented Logan Crew, a former Log Haven sous chef, to take over the Stanza kitchen. And so, it was back for another visit. You can probably guess what happened. Yep, foiled again: Crew moved on just as I was ready to finally write a review, although he plans to return from time to time for tweaks and menu development.
More months went by. Well, I never really felt that Stanza was a "chef-driven" restaurant in the first place, and apparently the owners now agree. The current kitchen might not have a "name" chef at the helm, but my most recent dining experiences tell me they're on the right path.
There is nary a trace left—besides the remodeled bar—of Faustina, the restaurant that was transformed into Stanza. The owners literally raised the roof and created a gorgeous, sprawling eatery with warm, contemporary décor, a private upstairs dining room, fire pit, patio seating, valet parking and more. The management team includes operations manager Hillary Merrill, who runs a tight ship in the front of the house. With Jimmy Santangelo on board as beverage director, Stanza's wine, beer and cocktail selections are innovative and sprinkled with happy surprises.
After many good meals at Stanza, I'll just try to hit some of the highlights, in addition to excellent service from employees like Erin and Samantha. First, the crudo ti tonno ($16) appetizer is exquisite. It's a round of minced raw yellowtail and red pepper, topped with fresh fennel fronds and served with a spicy fennel-apple agrodolce and house-baked cinnamon-spiked semolina crackers. Other outstanding starters include arancini ($8)—a trio of fried rice balls made with fresh housemade mozzarella, peperonata and basil; and, in warm weather, the divine housemade burrata ($12) with fresh favas, tomato and basil.
Stanza's superb salads aren't the afterthought they are in some restaurants. I and some of my fellow foodies think that their Caesar ($9) is one of the best in town, and the beet salad ($9) with goat cheese, chicories, candied almonds and white balsamic was delicious even to a beet naysayer like me. There are usually nine or 10 dishes on the menu featuring fresh, housemade pasta. I think the rich, meaty veal-and-pork casarecce alla Bolognese ($22) is second to none—a hearty and satisfying winter dish. At the lighter end of the scale is farfalle all'aragosta ($28), a lovely dish of fresh farfalle tossed with generous lobster morsels and long-stemmed mushrooms in a delicate white wine, lemon and garlic sauce.
I very much like the whole branzino that Stanza's slightly older sister Current serves, but the boneless, prosciutto-wrapped branzino with picatta sauce ($30) is probably easier for guests to tackle. Any time of year—but especially in cold weather—cioppino is a good call. Stanza's consists of fish, potatoes, shrimp, mussels and calamari in a picante tomato broth ($32). For dessert, enjoy a scoop of the excellent housemade gelato and a glass of sweet, spicy Vin Santo. CW