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Stella's Restaurant in New Kensington featured on TV because of problems, but new decor and food make it worth the trip

| Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, 9:11 p.m.
The blue bridge motif at Stella's Restaurant in New Kensington can be seen behind the House Gnocchis with Mushroom Alfredo on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
The blue bridge motif at Stella's Restaurant in New Kensington can be seen behind the House Gnocchis with Mushroom Alfredo on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
An abstract map of Pittsburgh is displayed behind the bar at Stella's Restaurant in New Kensington on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
An abstract map of Pittsburgh is displayed behind the bar at Stella's Restaurant in New Kensington on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.

A starring role on an episode of Food Network's “Restaurant: Impossible” helped to revitalize Stella's Restaurant in New Kensington.

But the revamped interior and menu also play a role in making a dinner at the restaurant a memorable experience.

“People have been responding well to the changes,” says Jamie Mazzotta, who runs the 13-year-old restaurant with her mother and brother, Stacey and Dominic Mazzotta.

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine was tasked with not only improving the decor and the food, but ironing out tension between the Mazzottas, who, at times, struggled to keep the business going after the death of Stacey Mazzotta's husband, Alan “A.J.” Mazzotta, in 2005.

The trio's disagreements may have made for compelling television, but all seemed harmonious during two recent visits to the restaurant.

All three Mazzottas made cameo appearances during our dinners, chatting with customers. Not only did they seem to know many of their guests, but many of the guests seemed to know each other.

It had been years since we last stepped foot in Stella's, and we can't say previous visits made much of an impression.

Irvine's decorating crew pulled from Pittsburgh's industrial, “bridgey” atmosphere to create a new, larger dining room with a fresh, young vibe. The centerpiece is an open foyer reconstructed to resemble the steel girders of the region's many bridges.

The carpeting was replaced with wood-laminate flooring, and the walls are accented with shades of gray and vibrant blue. About a dozen tables, some with bench seats, are scattered throughout.

Two focal points include an abstract black-and-white map of Pittsburgh behind the bar and a large window into the kitchen that allows you to watch your pizza dough being hand-tossed.

As for the menu, Jamie Mazzotta says they've made changes even since the show aired in November, helped along by the recent addition of a new chef who previously worked at Meat & Potatoes in Pittsburgh's Cultural District.

“We've brought in new people to give the menu a little flavor,” she says, but notes they're keeping their “homemade-style food.”

Some classic customer favorites have remained, including the D&M Pizza ($7 small, $11 large, plus $1 to $2 per topping).

Named for Dom Mazzotta and his younger sister, Marissa, the D&M features tomato-based sauce mixed with a blend of cheeses, forming a sort of pink sauce over the thin crust. We added pepperoni and found the smaller, four-cut pie to be a perfect starter.

From the selection of hand-breaded, deep-fried appetizers, we tried the Fried Portabellas ($6). Two mushroom caps about the diameter of hockey pucks were served on a bed of arugula with a side of warm, tart marinara sauce. They were a tasty starter for two, but wouldn't go far with larger parties.

We had to sample one of the dishes Irvine revamped, and we agree with Jamie Mazzotta's televised reaction that the House Gnocchi with Mushroom Alfredo ($12) was “bangin'.” A bowl of larger-than-normal gnocchi pasta was topped with a rich, mushroom-flavored sauce. Diners have the option of marinara sauce instead of alfredo.

We didn't realize entrees were served with a cup of coleslaw — crisp cabbage topped with a special vinaigrette — but it was a welcome, fresh accompaniment to the rich dinner. We had ordered a dinner salad ($5.25 as a side, $6 a la carte) to accompany the gnocchi. Entrees also come with a few slices of focaccia bread.

We'd recommend another name for the Gourmet Salad ($12): the Kitchen Sink. Irvine was amusingly puzzled by the concept of a Pittsburgh salad topped with french fries, and we understand his confusion — you have to dig to find the salad greens under the heap made of shoestring fries, grilled chicken, shredded cheese, a fried wedge of provolone cheese, a pickled egg, an onion ring and sliced beets. There are a few traditional salad vegetables under there, too — sliced cucumbers, grape tomatoes, a pepperoncini and olives. We enjoyed this filling “salad,” but don't order it if you're looking for a light, healthy dinner.

Diners have the option of replacing the shoestring fries — which were Irvine's addition — with fresh-cut fries for 50 cents, and you can have chipped sirloin, “gyro” meat, chicken tenders or buffalo chicken instead of the grilled chicken. As a dressing, we opted for the tasty house ranch.

The eggplant parmigiana ($10) offered a heaping, delicious serving of breaded eggplant layered with marinara sauce and cheese. We declined the addition of a side of spaghetti for $3, but did try a cup of the day's soup, beef vegetable ($4) and found it to be full of chunks of beef, cabbage, corn, green beans and carrots. The wedding soup, available daily, was similarly loaded with greens, noodles, mini meatballs and shredded chicken.

The Brisket Burger ($9) could rival those found at gourmet burger joints. Served on a toasted brioche bun, the juicy burger was topped with American cheese at our request and came with lettuce, tomato and onion on the side. We were told the burger would come with shoestring fries, but ours arrived with the fresh-cut fries that are supposed to be a $2 up-charge. We weren't disappointed — the fries were excellent.

The meatball panini ($10) featured a large meatball sliced in half and covered in sauce and mozzarella cheese, all sandwiched between slices of flatbread.

We were stuffed, but we couldn't pass up desserts, especially when we saw that milkshakes made from Oakmont-based Brr-Kee's Ice Cream were on the menu. Luckily, the treats are available for takeout.

The Salted Caramel Pretzel Milkshake ($7) reminded us of a similar concoction offered at Burgatory — a vanilla base spiked with tiny chunks of pretzel and topped with a swirl of caramel and whipped cream for the perfect combination of salty and sweet.

We also enjoyed the Ho Ho Cake ($6) — a layer of vanilla frosting is sandwiched between a dense base of chocolate cake and a creamy chocolate mousse, then the works is drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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