BURNT HILLS — It’s a bit unexpected but quite welcome, a rustic Italian cafe in a country store. Let me introduce you to Stella at Fo’Castle Farm.
Find Stella by walking through the 110-year-old country store with its gorgeous baked goods and myriad delightful gifts. You’re there to eat.
Stella is smart, with minimalist decor, and like the labyrinthine store meanders through different spaces. The first room you’ll encounter is large and airy, with large tables and seats at the bar. Beyond that is a spacious porch with glass doors on all sides. We headed to the patio to eat outside — it was finally spring.
There are six tables, some with umbrellas, on the paver patio with its white-painted, wrought iron railing around. You’re close enough to the road to hear the cars passing, but by dinnertime it’s not too busy.
Our server brought menus and drinks, and returned with a lengthy recitation of the specials. Stella gets points for the wine list — it’s short but with a variety of decent reds and whites, none over $30 a bottle. There’s a beer menu as well. I had a glass ($6 with happy hour discount) of Prophecy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which tasted of grapefruit and green apple. Perfect for a rare warm evening.
All pasta, bread and sauces are made in-house daily with ingredients from local farms, including Battenkill Valley Creamery in Salem and Story Farms in Catskill. Check their website for a full list of local suppliers.
Rustic, unaffected starters are arancini ($9) and bruschetta ($8). Simple salads are tossed with house dressings. Stella’s flatbreads are their pizza. Pasta dishes include a straightforward tagliatelle Pomodoro ($12). Cavatelli pasta, made with Maplebrook Farm ricotta, is served with vodka sauce ($16), roasted vegetables ($16.50) or pesto ($16.50). You can get chicken parm ($17.50) or sausage and peppers ($15.50). Save room for homemade desserts.
We enjoyed fat slices from a generous chunk of crusty boule and dragged pieces through golden puddles of fruity Saratoga Olive Oil.
Pomodoro soup ($6) is on the menu at lunch and dinner, and it’s the essence of tomatoes transformed into a finely textured, glossy bisque garnished with a squiggle of fragrant olive oil and served with black pepper-spiked croutons. I loved it.
My Italian friend Virginia, from Utica, who correctly identified the statue at the rear of the garden as St. Anthony (“I’m always losing my keys”), was delighted to find escarole soup ($6.50) on the menu.
The soup made the cut with sautéed greens and white beans in tasty chicken broth with what looked like rice or pasta. “It’s the way my mother used to make it,” she said.
Entrees came out way too soon, and had to sit while we finished our first course. Virginia had the risotto special ($19), a spectacular presentation of grilled chicken over pancetta-loaded, flavor-packed and perfectly al dente risotto. Glossy leaves of barely sauteed spinach gave it color, and the fried onion garnish added crunch. It was also delicious.
“Look at all that pancetta,” Virginia said delightedly. She shared some of her dinner: The grilled boneless chicken breast was tender and juicy, and the flavorful rice could have been its own satisfying, delicious meal. The lightly cooked pancetta put it over the top, she said.
The side salad showed up later, at the time we would have been expecting our meals. It’s a handsome, colorful salad topped with julienned carrots in a rainbow of colors. The chefs at Stella make the dressings — roasted garlic parmesan vinaigrette and white balsamic vinaigrette with fresh herbs. The grape tomatoes are sliced, and the greens are tossed and perfectly, lightly, dressed.
Stella features house-made cavatelli in several of its dishes, a dense pasta similar to gnocchi. Instead of potato, cavatelli features ricotta cheese, which adds fat and richness to an already carbohydrate-dense food. They are delicious and they are substantial. I couldn’t eat half of the cavatelli with pesto ($16.50 on the menu; the tab showed $16) if I wanted to eat anything else. Theirs has fresh basil and garlic flavors, and there are bits of ground-up pine nut that give it some texture. It’s rustic food: simple, hearty, filling. And, I must admit, looking over at the colorful plate of grilled chicken risotto with some envy, a bit monotonous.
I was glad I didn’t finish. There’s a long list of fresh baked desserts to choose from, including cider doughnuts. Stella gets points for recognizing them for what they are, calorically: dessert. We could choose from chocolate cake, creme brûlée, several kinds of pie, the doughnuts and their nutritionally equivalent cousins, apple turnovers.
We chose the homemade Italian cookie platter ($6) to share. It arrived while our entree plates were still waiting to be cleared. Some plates would have been nice, as the cookies were fresh and delicate and broke apart in our hands. My favorite, the macarons, were filled with real buttercream, not the grainy, sugary stuff but smooth icing. Tender pink cookies tasted of marzipan. There were powdered sugar-covered short dough cookies made with ground nuts, and genets decorated with lemon icing. We liked them all.
The total tab came to $60.96. Our food was excellent, the server perhaps a bit inexperienced and unfamiliar with the menu. We experienced uncleared dishes, awkwardly timed deliveries, missing silverware here and there. Nothing experience and training won’t fix.
The server gave us a wax paper bag for the rest of the bread and our neatly packed leftovers. We left without managing to buy anything in the gift store, though we were sorely tempted.
Visit Stella for many reasons. Think of it: You can have a delicious Italian meal and bring home cider doughnuts.
Stella Pasta Bar & Bakery
WHERE: 166 Kingsley Road, Burnt Hills, 518-399-8322,
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Sunday brunch. Open Tuesday for lunch only starting June 5.
HOW MUCH: $60.96, with one decaf, tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Children’s menu. Reservations recommended for larger groups.