Caffe Delle Stelle was a solid Italian trattoria. From the free-flowing sparkling water and complimentary bread to the traditionally prepared Bolognese, the Walnut Creek restaurant always provided reliable fine dining without the fuss.
If I couldn't get a reservation at neighboring Prima or didn't want to pay the extra bucks for pasta, there was always a table for my family at Caffe Delle Stelle.
Unfortunately, a massive rent hike forced the restaurant's owners to close the North Main Street location after 17 years of business. The original San Francisco restaurant is still open and thriving in Hayes Valley; to continue feeding followers in Walnut Creek, co-owner Hugo Boye opened Stelle Bistro in December in the Locust Street spot that formerly housed Chili's.
Stelle Bistro is not Caffe Delle Stelle. It's much bigger. The floor plan is disjointed. And there's a nondescript bar lit from underneath with neon pink that felt out of place. Also, without a menu in hand, you wouldn't have a sense for the type of cuisine this restaurant serves. While it lacks the inherent neighborhood charm of Caffe Delle Stelle, the food is still mostly Italian with some South American items to showcase Boye's Chilean upbringing.
That's one change I liked, especially when it came time to order appetizers on a recent Friday night. Instead of the usual bruschetta or calamari, we opted for empanadas ($6.50), a sauteed scallop dish called Conchitas a la Parmesana ($10.95) and grilled eggplant, or Melanzane ($8.25).
The half-moon empanadas arrived piping hot and filled with savory ground beef, onions, kalamata olives, raisins and hard-boiled eggs. They reminded me of the same moist, to-die-for empanadas I ate a few years ago on the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina, after steak fatigue set in.
I liked the tangy kick and color of the scallops, which were given a simple treatment of garlic, butter and Parmesan cheese but finished with a splash of bright lime sauce. I also appreciated how simply the eggplant was prepared: sliced thin as paper and grilled with olive oil, then topped with capers, caramelized onions, balsamic vinegar, and feta cheese. It was delicious.
With appetizers this satisfying, we had high hopes for the entrees but were disappointed with the Rustica ($14.95), a dish of ear-shaped pasta with fontina cheese, cubed potato, caramelized onions, sage and truffle oil. We expected the ingredients to be swimming in some civilized truffle-and-cheese sauce, but the dish looked and behaved more like a pasta scramble, with dry potato chunks clinging to the interiors of every pasta piece until it was one cohesive blob. Heavy and unappetizing.
Luckily, the Pappardelle alla Etrusca ($15.95) was delightful -- just like I remembered it from Caffe Delle Stelle -- with its fresh, wide ribbons of pasta and ground, sage-spiked sausage in a roasted garlic tomato sauce. We asked for our Parmesan cheese on the side, but the kitchen still put it on top. Good thing our lactose intolerance is not severe.
But what if it was? Our waitress was warm and helpful, but I wondered if she was new to the job because she didn't make confident recommendations and was unfamiliar with the restaurant's wine list. When we asked her who had deemed Stelle Bistro's tiramisu "award-winning," she said, "Yes, we make it here." Misunderstanding? Language barrier? Not sure. She was nice, but I expected more.
The tiramisu was certainly good, but not as memorable as the Cioppino ($24.95), a broad, shallow bowl of crab, shrimp, clams, mussels and salmon swimming in a tangy tomato stew. I appreciated that the various seafood items were all cooked to perfection -- not an easy task and worth every penny.
We lapped it up with the accompanying garlic toasts and even asked for another basket of their warm, homemade salty bread to ensure no sauce was wasted. Yes, it's still complimentary. So is the sparkling water, a message to me that despite its physical changes and wait staff learning curve, the spirit of Caffe Delle Stelle may linger in this bistro.
* * ½
FOOD: * * *
AMBIENCE: * *
SERVICE: * *
WHERE: 1403 Locust St.,
CONTACT: 925-988-0604; http://stellebistro.com
HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; until 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Brunch,
10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
CUISINE: Italian and South American
VEGETARIAN: No entrees, but several pasta dishes, soups and salads
BEVERAGES: Tea, coffee, sodas, beer, and a large wine list that meanders between the Old and New World. I'd prefer a more focused program to complement the Italian and South American cuisine.
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Ours dug the empanadas
PLUSES: 31 years of restaurant experience, including San Francisco mainstay Caffe Delle Stelle
MINUSES: Some dishes are different from what you expect; some wait staff lack experience.
DATE OPENED: Dec. 8
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40