A Pizzeria Beloved for Its Dumplings and Merguez
A typical dinner spread at Philadelphia’s Stina Pizzeria might include a pepperoni pizza, an Italian hoagie, a plate of spaghetti with mussels, and maybe a kale salad. But if I were you, I’d ignore the pizzas entirely. Not because they’re bad, of course — the kitchen’s beating heart is a wood-fired oven, so the Neapolitan-style pies are blistered to the nines.
I just don’t go to Stina for pizzas and sandwiches. No, I go for the manti dumplings sweating chile oil; for Turkish pide stuffed with merguez; for the charred octopus tentacle curled on a plate with edible flowers and swipes of black garlic. All funny things to order at a pizzeria, I know.
Funny like owner Bobby Saritsoglou’s mutton chops. Like the clown art and old marionettes that hang from the walls. Like the overt meta-ness of the old picture frames framed inside larger picture frames, and mirrors reflecting other mirrors. Outside, the restaurant is sandwiched between an old laundromat and a nail salon. There’s a Sunoco station directly across the street. Sit in the tables by the window, and those are the views.
By pizzeria standards, Stina Pizzeria is a very peculiar place. But Stina was never really going to be just about pizza. Bobby and his wife, Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou, had bigger plans for their restaurant. Stina is about its neighborhood, West Passyunk. Stina is about building a community. And sometimes, Stina is about merguez sausage.
By pizzeria standards, Stina Pizzeria is a very peculiar place (geographically; conceptually). But Stina was never really going to be just about pizza.
So before we can further discuss Stina Pizzeria, we need to talk about International Gourmet Market one block away. It’s a Middle Eastern bodega of sorts, hidden between an auto repair shop and an old eyeglasses studio on West Passyunk Avenue. It’s one of those stores that presents like it’s closed, even when it’s not. Anis Benmahidi bought the business a year ago, and to draw in more customers, he put up a whiteboard out front touting crêpes and Belgian waffles — but I don’t go to International Gourmet Market for crêpes and waffles. No, I go for all my ras-el-hanout and pomegranate syrup needs or to stock up on frozen baby okra and pita; on cans of harissa and jars of grape leaves; and on Benmahidi’s homemade merguez sausage, especially.
If you hang out there for 10 minutes or so, another customer might show up shopping for merguez, too. Word has spread of its deep spice and baklouti heat, and people come to Benmahidi’s shop to order it sometimes weeks ahead of time. I assume its growing popularity has something to do with the Saritsoglous.
And West Passyunk, I’ve come to learn (as the food editor of the city/regional magazine in town), is a tricky neighborhood for new food establishments. It’s a corridor that sits just south of the quickly gentrifying Point Breeze/Newbold neighborhoods but hasn’t much adopted or received the same sort of developmental energy. It doesn’t help that it shares the name and lives in the shadow of East Passyunk Avenue, the city’s most thriving restaurant row. For years, West Passyunk Avenue’s one and only claim to food fame was the Melrose Diner (across the street from the International Gourmet Market). Otherwise, you’d likely go to West Passyunk Avenue to get your car repaired or your vision checked.
It’s changing, though — slowly, as neighborhoods do. Two breweries opened nearby. A handful of new cafes and bars are putting down roots. As did the Saritsoglous, who live in the neighborhood, despite the fact that Bobby is somewhat of a name on the Philly restaurant scene; with his chef-y résumé (a Michelin-starred restaurant in Greece, kitchens across Europe, finer restaurants here in Philly, plus Santucci’s, a pizza institution in South Philly), he probably could have found investors to do something more ambitious in someplace more central. He could have done what so many chefs tend to do and used his platform to open a “destination restaurant” somewhere with cheap rent. We see it happen all the time in cities: a chef or restaurateur opens a new spot in a not-yet-gentrified neighborhood only to alienate the surrounding community with fancy crudos and $24 pastas. But Saritsoglou went with a pizzeria, continuing a legacy left by his late father and so many other Greek immigrants before him who opened pizzerias and very neighborhood-y restaurants across the U.S.
And Stina is, in the purest sense, a neighborhood restaurant. It’s BYOB. Nothing on the menu exceeds $18. The entire staff was hired from the surrounding community — the floor manager lives above the restaurant. There’s a do-good bent to the restaurant’s business model, too: 1 percent of Stina’s gross daily income, including 20 percent on the final Tuesday of every month, is given to a nonprofit of their choosing. Last month, it was Women in Transition. “I wanted to create something very different, but I also wanted to fill a need,” Saritsoglou said. So he put hoagies and shawarma sandwiches on his menu to keep it approachable and daytime-friendly.
When the restaurant first opened, Saritsoglou made his own merguez because, like any good chef, he likes to scratch-make everything. He’d go to International Gourmet Market to buy baharat and za’atar — Stina’s non-pizza menu has this sort of borderless Mediterranean/Middle Eastern thing going on — and that’s where he first tried Benmahidi’s homemade merguez. Now, Saritsoglou buys 20 pounds of it every week for the restaurant.
He’ll present it in a tagine piled with couscous and pickled vegetables, the sausage crisp and bouncy, kissed by the smoke of the oven. When it’s folded into the hull of his pides, it’s melted into mozzarella and topped with this zippy tabbouleh salad to brighten it all up. And when he serves it in the 24-seat restaurant, he tells all his guests about Benmahidi and the International Gourmet Market down the street. In turn, all those guests become new customers of International Gourmet Market.
And that’s special. That’s a restaurant I want to be in. Warm. Personal. Inclusive in all the best ways a restaurant can be. I’m obsessed with the fact that not a single diner questions the kitchen’s globetrotting antics (what with our collective aversion to “fusion” menus). Stina is very busy. Surprisingly busy. Filled with people you normally — historically — wouldn’t see hanging out in West Passyunk, dining side by side with neighborhood folk, all of them geeking out about Benhmahidi’s merguez.