Wishing on a Star

New York J&P Pizza's Illiano Family Transforms La Stella in Spring Ridge

By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 10.19.16 – Dining, Food & Drink

People who grew up eating “real” New York pizza revere it as the gold standard of pies. The secret, they say, is the water used in the dough that forms a hearty, chewy base for handfuls of molten cheese, toppings and a slick, sauce-tinged sheen of oil that drips from the tip of a slice when folded—which is proper form for hand-to-mouth delivery.

Chicago has its own knife-and-fork affair. Far from dainty, deep-dish pizza loads hefty fillings into a relatively thin-crusted shell. A thick layer of cheese covers the payload like edible gift-wrap. Both styles have devotees who debate which version reigns supreme. When it comes to pedigree though, Italy’s original pizza Napolitana ruled the taste buds long before either American contender was a gleam in the pizzaiolo’s‎ eye.

These dueling cousins owe their existence to a popular dish developed over centuries. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an Italian association that certifies pizzerias using proper ancient technique, details the history of this craft. According to the association, “before the 1700s, flatbreads existed but were never topped with tomatoes—now a defining characteristic of pizza.” Europe encountered tomatoes from South America in the 16th century, but believed them to be poisonous until peasants in Naples who started using them to top flatbread in the late 18th century and a local specialty was born. Baker Raffaele Esposito gets credit for creating classic Neapolitan-style pizza in 1889. His creation mirrored the Italian flag: red (tomatoes), white (mozzarella) and green (basil leaves), in honor of the visiting King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy.

Eating pizza is certainly a tradition for most Americans these days, no matter their actual ancestry. It’s de rigueur fare for extended work meetings, sports celebrations and couch-potato weekends. That’s not to say it’s all good pizza. Nazzareno, a single-named Frederick resident with the rhythmic accent of a native Italian speaker, calls the near-miss recipes “survival pizza.” He explains, “You eat them because it’s available.” One of his favorite pizza places is La Stella in Spring Ridge. “I’ve had pizza in Italy and Tony’s is better.”

Recently renovated and renamed, La Stella (which, translated, means “the star”) is an evolution of New York J&P Pizza previously at the same location and is still owned by the Illiano family. Antonio “Tony” Illiano, a native of Naples, is this location’s beaming proprietor. If the place is open, he’s probably there. He learned his work ethic early, starting at a restaurant in Brescia, Italy, when he was just 15. He served tables, washed dishes and did general cleaning.

“My dad told me to choose school or work,” he says, “and I picked the work.” He wound up in Maryland by following his brother Franco (Frank), who emigrated in 1982. The family purchased a pizzeria in Westminster from friends named John and Pat, which is where the J&P name came from. By the time brother Fausto joined Frank, Tony and Augusto (Mike)

in 1984, the Illianos had already opened their second location in Hampstead. They expanded their family owned chain, keeping the J&P name, into Damascus, Eldersburg, Glyndon, Hampstead, Finksburg, Mount Airy, Pikesville, Scaggsville and the Frederick location in Spring Ridge. There’s also one in Hanover, Pa., now. “America is a land of dreams,” says Tony, shaking his finger as he continues wryly, “but only if you work hard.”

After nearly 37 years making pizza, 14 of those years at the Spring Ridge location, Tony could probably toss one together in his sleep, but the repetition hasn’t dulled his passion for this simple dish. In fact, a desire to showcase more traditional fare

was the impetus behind J&P’s transformation into La Stella. Tony, working alongside sons Brandon and Kevin, scaled back their operation just after the start of this year, focusing on carryout while they prepped the dining room for reconstruction. They opened the layout, moving the bar and adding high-top tables, freshened paint and décor. Custom paneling matches the new faux-wood tiled floor. The starring element of the update is an authentic, custom-made, wood-fired brick oven. It’s a flame-colored dome of artisan-placed tiles emblazoned with “La Stella” in block letters—and it’s the size of a small car. The temperature inside it is a scorching 900 degrees.

A New Phase

By the time La Stella debuted on April 27, Tony was ready to welcome customers back with a revamped menu of Italian cuisine, including the classic pizza of his boyhood home. Customers didn’t seem to return the enthusiasm. Some balked at the change, while others didn’t realize that La Stella was still connected to New York J&P Pizza. Part of the hesitation was changing the well-known phone number (which is now 301-732-4468). Tony says sales volume during the summer months was particularly up and down. Undaunted, he spent the season collecting feedback and fine-tuning his new menu. “I know it’s good food. I try to make everybody happy if I can.” He puts a hand over his heart, offering a personal guarantee of “cleanliness and quality.”

However slowly, patrons are discovering La Stella. Eat in or take out, hungry folks can still dine on New York-style pizza ($10-$14) along with their enduringly popular stromboli ($10) and calzones ($10) or dive in to gnocchi sorrentina (saucy potato dumplings, $17), hand-cut chicken parmesan ($18) and ziti castellana with sausage ($16). Ten-inch subs run in the $9-$11 range.

From the wood-fired oven, classic margherita pizza ($10) and pizza bianca al prosciutto ($14) are guests’ favorites. Each is a relatively thin, toothsome disk of chewy, lightly charred bread about 11 inches across, topped with judiciously placed dollops of imported buffalo mozzarella, and the herbaceous bite of fresh basil. Pizza bianca adds ribbons of petal-pink prosciutto, shaved parmesan and peppery arugula. Brandon encouraged his dad to include the bianca patatosa, a hot dog-and-French fry pizza popular in Italy.

La Stella is open to requests, too. On special occasions, the Illianos share a family favorite, Nutella pizza. Brandon grins, “Sometimes I’ll eat Nutella pizza for dinner and (co-workers) will laugh and say, ‘Oh, you’re making health food again.’” Good for the soul, indeed.

“I want to be here many years more,” says Tony, who also lives in the neighborhood. “The time I put into this restaurant is worth it and I love it.” He eyes Brandon slyly, “Eventually, I hope my kids will take over.” In the meantime, Tony’s feet are planted on the ground while he’s reaching for the stars.