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Insalata Napoli, with romaine, arugula, salami, prosciutto, artichokes, mushrooms and more

A Stella Performance

by Gael Greene | Photo: Dominic Perry | Manhattan magazine | April 30, 2013

Trust me! I’m going to send you to Macy’s for dinner. I’m not telling you it’s the next hot hangout for pretty young club kids or the secret new hub for 40-ish singles looking for love or a pickup. But yes, I’m sending you to Stella 34 Trattoria, the sprawling new eatery on Macy’s sixth floor. It has killer views of the Empire State Building and its own dedicated elevators. It boasts an inviting prosecco bar, lush suckling pig with ribbons of crackle, three wood-burning ovens and ice cream from Vivoli, the Florentine institution that’s never ventured abroad before.

I know what you’re thinking. Shopping bag ladies. Cutesy salads on lace doilies. Servers left over from Schrafft’s. Forget it. Stella is ambitious and sophisticated, markedly upper-class. The floorwalkers trained at Lincoln Ristorante, the $20 million feeding station in Lincoln Center. Lincoln’s chef Jonathan Benno put in his two cents, consulting here for his bosses from Patina Group. Caricatures of celebrated foodies gathered on two walls, in the style of Sardi’s, will make you giggle. If you need to fortify before or after shopping, it’s a natural. But Stella is also just steps from the Fashion District needle. And so far, early on and relatively undiscovered, it’s a mellow spot for pre-theater dinner, especially if you have a car with a driver waiting below.

I’m not expecting quite this elegance as my friends and I hop into the private elevator just inside the entrance at 35th and Broadway one evening. I’m instantly bowled over by the looming majesty of the Empire State crown, white tonight, hanging over our table. We order a pizza diavola to eat while we study the menu. I should have said, “crisp,” because it’s soft in the Neapolitan way I don’t like and the salami piccante isn’t spicy at all. Frankly, the $12 cocktails could have more pow too. The blood orange margarita needs a big squeeze of blood orange. I’ve had more serious Negronis. A jigger of vodka is lost in its too-tall glass.

But I’m quickly distracted by my half of a crusty arancino, a rice ball filled with bits of sausage and mozzarella, and by grilled baby octopus with discs of potato licked by a romesco sauce. Next I get a taste of my companion’s paccheri, the wide hollow pasta tubes I happen to love, in a braised beef ragu with caramelized onions, and I’m forgetting the view. Then I lose myself in the lush fontina creaminess binding my own tortiglioni—a ridged tube I never encountered before—dotted with ham and flutters of red endive. While my tablemates are engrossed in other dramas, I’ve already eaten more than my share.

It’s only the 10th day but our waiter is poised, not too chummy, not too robotic. He knows his drill. When I hesitate over the octopus carpaccio, he points out the same octapod grilled. His amusingly accented description of the evening specials seduces my pals. One orders the veal saddle with broccoli rabe from the wood oven. Great flavor though it would be juicier if it were a little pinker as I requested. My other friend’s thick round cut of suckling pig, a generous portion from the rotisserie, is wondrously moist and beribboned with crackling skin.

When I ask if the chef, Jarett Appell, a veteran of Union Square Cafe and most recently, Donatella restaurant, does a baked pasta, the waiter ponders awhile, then points to the tortino di melanzane. “I recommend you try this instead,” he says. The tortino is stylish and lighter than classic eggplant parm. I’m sharing the parm with my friends, along with the insalata Napoli—a heaping collection of chopped romaine, arugula, artichokes, mushrooms, peppers and olives topped with salami, prosciutto and Provolone. Enough for two to divide as a starter or a meal all by itself for just $13.

The torta di nocciola with hazelnut biscuit, gianduja mousse, chocolate ganache and crema gelato quiets those of us who think a day must end with chocolate. But I wouldn’t overlook the housemade crema gelato cherry float in a tall glass with brandy-soaked Amarena cherries. It’s spectacular, though even a $4.75 piccolo cup of Vivoli ice cream makes a great finale too.

Back a week later for lunch, a friend and I are equally impressed by another insalata, the barbabietole, featuring red and yellow roasted beets, lentils, arugula and frissee with a plop of stracciatella cheese, soft and runny, and the crunch of candied pistachios. “I like everything in this dish,” she remarks. We share “small plates” too. Verdure, a collection of Brussels sprouts and cauliflower in four colors, is a technicolor triumph. “I want to wear this dish,” she says. “Purple is one of my best colors,” I agree. Scarola, wilted, and primed with garlic and a little chili heat, will please serious escarole lovers. It definitely won us.

But it’s the lasagna that has us both swooning. An original with black kale, sausage and potatoes, it oozes béchamel and creamy fontina. It’s crumbed too and the crumbs look like they just got swept up from the house’s bread-slicing station. Very appealing.

No way we can do justice to the rotisserie chicken, even if we hadn’t eaten most of the lasagna—one slice, then another, then a third. I’d like the bird not quite so salty. But I take it home anyway, hoping it will taste less of salt cold the next day on my salad.

Of course my friend wanted to taste the Vivoli gelati. She found the stracciatella disappointing. I don’t doubt that’s how three generations of family have done it in Florence, but I wouldn’t call it chocolate chip—it’s one chip smashed in 25 dots not much bigger than a tick, scarcely chocolate at all. No need to make a federal case out of it though, just order tangerine and pineapple for their fruity verve.

Nick Valenti, Patina Group czar, is the taskmaster here. He’s famous for fussing over every detail—it must be Caputo flour imported from Naples; the water from local wells must be meticulously matched in pH and mineral balance with the natural spring water in Naples.

There are more than 100 bottles on the all-Italian wine list. He knows Stella will entice shoppers of course. They can pick up a custom-order panini or a chef-crafted salad at the Cibi Ronda, the Italian takeaway counter, sit at the prosecco bar or linger at a small table. He’s counting on an unlikely public too.

I suspect it will be ticklish to convince New Yorkers to hit Macy’s after closing for a dinner. Even gastronauts who blithely troll to the far corners of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn—or as far away as Hoboken—may hesitate till word gets around how special Stella is. It’s perfect for grownups, for entertaining the in-laws or cousins from out of town. The house definitely has the Empire State Building on its side. I’ve been back myself twice already.

Stella 34 Trattoria
151 W. 34th St., 6th Floor, 212.967.9251, stella34.com

Lunch: 11:30am-4pm
Dinner: Mon.-Sat.: 4-9:30pm,
Sun. 4-9pm