(Traverse City, MI) — It is the the day after Thanksgiving. We took it easy this year, foregoing anything too fancy, and avoiding our usual restaurant turkey dinner, so we’re primed for a big meal on Black Friday. We decide to join friends at Trattoria Stella for dinner in Traverse City. Although we’ve eaten here a couple times in past, it’s been a while, and we’ve learned a lot about food since then. John and Di ride along as we drive to Grand Traverse Commons to meet Ivy and JoJo, and their family...
I love driving onto the grounds of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The whispering trees and towering brick buildings that lean too close give away the fact that this place used to be called the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane. It reminds me of the fateful overhead opening shot of Jack Torrance driving up the mountain pass road to the Overlook Hotel in THE SHINING, or a descriptive paragraph from one of Lovecraft’s works. Despite the modern overhaul and repurposing of the grounds, there’s still a creepy atmosphere to the property...which I adore. All food and no play makes Jeremy a dull boy.
Our foursome is first to arrive at Trattoria Stella—after a meandering exploration of the new shops that opened since our last visit—so we make ourselves comfortable at the table with a bottle of Col Vetoraz Prosecco. It is dry and bubbly, prepping our palates and gullets for what is sure to be a rich meal. The rest of our post-holiday revellers arrive shortly and the parade of dishes begins.
There’s no doubt what I’ll be ordering as an appetizer: Pacific Octopus! It’s served in a shallow bowl of rice beans, Calabrese sausage, and tomato which rest in a thin, flavorful salty broth. The octopus is medium-sized (I always expect octopus to be bigger) and has a nice char on it. I dig in. The salty-briny tentacle isn’t quite as tender as I like, but isn’t rubbery at all. I really like the combination of earthy beans and bright acid of the tomatoes. It’s a traditional Mediterranean preparation I’d expect to find in Italy, and a welcome taste of Europe on a cold November day in Michigan.
Other apps include housemade Burrata Pugliese with shaved Toscano salami, charred tomato vinaigrette, and crostini (creamy and spicy); a White Pizza of mozzarella, ricotta, and roasted garlic (addictively smoky); Bardiccio Tuscan blood sausage with red onion agrodolce and sour crema (a mild representation sure to appeal to anyone who might usually avoid blood sausage); beautiful Lardo shaved paper-thin and piled atop a tower of Honeycrisp apples, rosemary, toasted walnuts, mustard vinaigrette, and maple syrup (crazy combination of buttery, sweet, crunchy, and redolent of herbs); char-grilled Beets with Kalamata olives, red onion, fresh mozzarella, and extra virgin olive oil (woodsy with delicate unctuousness); and oven-roasted Chestnuts sprinkled with sea salt and EVOO. Much to everyone’s horror, I pop the whole chestnut into my mouth and crunch away. Only after I’ve swallowed the treat do they tell me I should have removed the shell first. It doesn’t matter; I enjoyed it whole. Hey, it’s not as if I were chasing a small boy through a hedge maze, wielding a fire axe...
I need a breather from all these small plates! I move on to a salad of Arugula, tossed with Golden Delicious apple chunks, pistachios, golden raisins, chives, and sweet cream. It’s one of those salads that’s almost dessert, crunchy and chewy, alternating between grassy and butter cream. I fork up every bit of yummy raisin and salty pistachio nut.
Our server recounts today’s specials and one captures my attention: Filet Mignon, topped with bleu cheese and onion, with a side of pumpkin risotto. Pumpkin! It’s the magic word, since I typically get excited in October/November for all things pumpkin (ravioli, beer, etc). Plus, I’ve had a hankering for beef lately. No brainer. It’s a perfect 8 ounces, cooked medium rare, still juicy. The onions provide a slippery caramel icing to the salty cheese and peppery beef. Pumpkin pops out of the creamy risotto in bright orange, firm lumps. I offer up a few bites to my fellow diners, but jealously guard most of it until it’s all been undone by my knife and fork.
Others order dessert and cheese, but I’m pretty well spent, sipping on the remainder of my delicious Brunelli Rosso di Montalcino Sangiovese. I do observe that we stump the waiter when Juliet orders an affogato. Though it’s not on the menu, I would expect any self-respecting Italian restaurant to know what an affogato is! We explain and he seems to understand, though the espresso is delivered well before the ice cream, so maybe something got lost in translation. At any rate, it’s the only sour note in an otherwise exemplary meal. Trattoria Stella offers a full and ever-changing menu of rustic Italian dishes, prepared soulfully and precisely. You will be hard pressed to find a better representation of a true Trattoria in Michigan.
I’ve been wanting to get back to Stella’s since our first visit a few years back. I remember the food and service being top-notch on that inaugural visit. Even better, we get to go back with the same folks that joined us that first time around, JoJo, Ivy, John, and Di. JoJo and Ivy’s daughter, Wren, is joining, as are JoJo’s parents. What’s better than a night out with foodie friends?
We order a mess of antipasti and insalate for the table: oven roasted chestnuts; char-grilled octopus with beans and tomatoes; Tuscan blood sausage; lardo with Honeycrisp apples; burrata with charred tomatoes; grilled and chilled beet salad; arugula salad with apples, raisins and pistachios; and a white pizza might seem excessive for eight adults and a small child to start with, but our group has no problems polishing it all off. Without even discussing sharing plates, everyone automatically takes a small serving from the dish they ordered and passes their plate around for all to try. This is going to be fun!
I order the burrata (gotta prevent osteoporosis somehow) which comes with shaved Toscano salami, crostini, and a charred tomato vinaigrette. Almost as much fun as eating the luscious burrata is enjoying the reactions of those who’d never had it before tonight. (Some people like to proselytize religion; I like to proselytize cheese.) There were lot’s of “ooh’s” and “aah’s” all around. If you’re a cheese lover, there is nothing like cutting into the springy mozzarella “shell” and having the ricotta cream filling ooze out. We all agree—a schmear of the burrata, a piece of sweet charred tomato, and a slice of the salami is pretty much heaven on toast.
I’ve never had chestnuts before and find them quite tasty. Meaty, smoky, and sprinkled with sea salt...what’s not to love? In fact, every bite I take is absolutely fabulous, even the blood sausage which I’m usually squeamish about. It is mild and meaty, not at all feral and coppery like others I’ve had.
For an entree, I choose Maltagliati, which is pasta made from scraps and off-cuttings leftover from other pastas. The name translates to “badly cut”,” a reference to the irregular shape of the pasta. Makes sense to me—why throw out perfectly good freshly made pasta? Trattoria Stella serves their maltagliati with Bolognese, which is one of my all time favorite sauces. In addition, we order three of the veggie sides for sharing: Brussels sprouts, baked eggplant, and roasted parsnips.
When the entrees are presented, folks keep hold of their plates, but offer up tastes all around. Reserved conviviality! I try a bite of Ivan’s short rib, which is divine. Lush meat on the inside with nice lacquered bark on the outside. I try Jeremy’s filet which is perfectly cooked medium rare. My maltagliati reminds me of the remnants left in the lasagna box—all those broken noodles languishing at the bottom. Each piece looks a little bit different from the other. The pasta is cooked well, with just a bit of tooth left and the Bolognese is thick and meaty. My one issue is that the dish is slightly salty. I don’t even detect it at first, but I realize about halfway through that I’m chugging water between bites.
The servers have been top notch, keeping waters filled, clearing plates efficiently (but not in a rushed manner), and suggesting good pairings with our fare. The only glitch is when we order dessert and coffees. I am full and have no business ordering dessert, but an affogato sounds like such a lovely way to end the evening. When I order it with a scoop of the sea salt gelato, both servers stop and stare. They’ve never heard of an affogato, which seems strange in a high end Italian eatery. When I explain it’s a shot of espresso poured over ice cream they still seem perplexed. After some head scratching and a quick sidebar they confirm they can bring me an espresso and a scoop of gelato. Whewie!
Jo orders the selection of fine chocolates and we all marvel over the generous platter of three chocolates they’ve delivered on a rustic cutting board. Someone’s orders the warm apple bread and a chocolate budino and there’s bites all around. My affogato is nothing short of spectacular. Our tummies are full and maybe our waiters learned a new after-dinner treat they can share with their patrons. I guess I don’t just proselytize cheese, but also desserts?