Stella Public House

1429 Island Ave., San Diego   »  Neighborhood: East Village   »  (619) 234-0808   »

In this edition of Beats & Eats, I get to hang out and taste my friend Giovanni Novella’s recipes at Stella Public House while keeping good company with the very talented Charlie Rae.

Stella Public House is a farm-to-table, wood-fired Italian pizza and craft beer bar with 30 rotating drafts located deep in the East Village of downtown San Diego. The first things I notice about this place is the long bar with all the beer taps behind it and a lush mini-forest of fresh basil plants, literally the healthiest and most beautiful basil pants I have ever seen. Charlie Rae and I greet each other and sit at a table across from one another. She seems a little uncomfortable at first, so I crack jokes about anything and everything to get her to loosen up. As soon as Gio comes to our table with some drinks, some food, a thick Italian accent and a handsome smile, she warms up and the feast begins.

Gio: We do everything fresh and organic: We make our own mozzarella, we use organic tomato sauce, we grow our own basil and every ingredient we use for our pizza is made here in California with the exceptions of cured meats from Italy. For the mozzarella, we use a local milk, we make the curd, we stretch about 40 to 60 pounds every day of mozzarella.

Mikey: Wow! Is that a real accent?

Gio: Eh, just a little bit.

(Laughs all around.)

Mikey: Tell us where you’re from, Gio.

Gio: Italy! (He responds proudly and with good posture.) In a city near Naples and Sorrento.

Gio lays down a dish of the best Arancini in town which is like a risotto with beets, salami and parmesan all coated and deep-fried while served on a bed of organic tomato sauce. He also lays down a Caprese Salad with locally sourced heirloom tomatoes, his house-made mozzarella, California extra virgin olive oil, pesto and basil just picked from those perfect plants. I dive into both dishes as does Charlie Rae, and we both look at each other and platonically moan. Gio is standing over us with his hands clasped and with a bigger smile than before.

Gio: Simple and fresh. I guarantee you’re never going to find a mozzarella like this one. It was made like 30 minutes ago.

Mikey: I’m infatuated with the basil. I grow basil at my house and it does not look like that and I want to learn.

Gio: It’s kind of tough, very tough.

Mikey: Gio, I love you.

Charlie: Me too!

We all get a good laugh and I start the interview with Charlie Rae.

Mikey: Charlie Rae.

Charlie: Hello.

Mikey: Where were you born and raised?

Charlie: Phoenix, Arizona.

Mikey: A fresh face out of Phoenix. I’ve been familiar with your music for a couple years now, I am a fan. The soul that comes out of you is beast mode. You hit some low octaves, which is pretty exciting. You have good range. What is your music history?

Charlie: My foundation is gospel music and if you can master gospel, you can sing anything. I started singing gospel with the Saviors of Soul at the age of 17, that’s where I got a taste of performing in front of people.

Mikey: Gospel, that’s a running theme for the female vocalists I have interviewed recently. You all have mentioned that gospel challenges you. Since your gospel upbringing, have there been any similar types of challenges?

Charlie: Absolutely. I was just talking about this with my friend about breaking your voice in key. An artist who does it perfectly, and who I’ve learned from, is Johnny Lang, who I played on the same bill with at the Arizona Jazz Festival a few years ago along with Trombone Shorty, George Benson, Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi. I’d never heard anything like that rasp, it is to die for. I was like “I have to sound like that, without drinking a bunch and smoking like 15 cigarettes because there goes my range, there goes the pretty stuff that people want to hear. I have to figure this out.” So at home, I banged on drums as loud as I could and sang a bunch of Marilyn Manson, which is really funny. It’s like, “The beautiful people, the beautiful people,” but then I learned how to do the rasp, but not kill my voice. That was the biggest challenge of the last four years, was to figure out how to do that.

Mikey: And do it safely …

Charlie: Do it safely and go back to singing super cute jazzy stuff with no rasp and last for three hours.

Gio comes back with a skip in his step and plates in his hands.

Gio: These are our Lamb Meatballs. This recipe is from my grandma in Italy!

Mikey: Wait! I’m about to eat your grandma’s recipe?! Please tell me more.

Gio: Yes! We use organic lamb and mix it with 50?50 beef and pork, because the lamb is very lean. We slow cook this for two hours with Bianco DiNapoli Organic Tomato Sauce.

I take bite of Gio’s meatballs and savor the flavor by inhaling through my nose and roll my eyes back in my head while chewing steadily. This man is special.

Mikey: This is the best meatball I’ve ever had in my mouth.

Charlie laughs, almost spitting her food out. We both lay into the other dish Gio brought, a White Mushroom Mac & Cheese with truffle oil served in a smoked gouda cheese sauce on top of cavatappi pasta. This is a real winner, but I only take a bite as there is a lot more coming. But back to the Beats …

Mikey: Charlie, when did you have your first actual band or act?

Charlie: Well, I’ve been solo for about 12 years. I just put together a band this year, so it’s the first time I’ve ever had a full band.

Mikey: Have you faced any challenges transitioning from solo artist to having a full band?

Charlie: It was a really weird transition at first but all of my guys were solid referrals, so I felt really safe and taken care of because they are pros. I was nervous for the first three, four weeks because I’m kind of a control freak. Sharing that stage and allowing someone to be in possession of something that you made that is so precious is nerve?racking. At some point you just let it go, so I did and it worked out. The first couple of shows went really well, we got it going on right now and I’m really excited.

Gio lays down a Beet Tower with layers of gold beets and red beets cooked in red wine vinegar sandwiching a mousse with ricotta and goat cheese while toasted pistachios are sprinkled throughout.

Mikey: Toasted pistachios?! Is that a dessert?

Gio: No, it’s an appetizer. You’re going to find it surprising with the acidity of the beet, the sweet of the goat cheese and the crunchiness of the toasted pistachios. It is one of our signature dishes.

I put my whole face—mouth opened down on the plate—and devour the entire tower.

Mikey: Oh my gosh. This is a serious food orgy right now, I want to go throw up and come back to eat more! OK, back to the Beats. I see you are booked for Pacific BeachFest in Pacific Beach on October 3, and you’re playing the main stage on the boardwalk at Hornblend Street. The backdrop is the ocean and Crystal Pier, it is always a nice day in the sun, what kind of set are you going to play?

Charlie: Rock, alternative, reggae, blues, we’ll play all of it. I’m really into playing the harmonica right now with that blues?rock sound, super soulful. I’ll go right into all the minor chords and do really haunting piano with a really funky beat on drums. I keep going back and forth. I guess the running theme would really be rock for that set.

Mikey: How many people are in the band?

Charlie: There are five of us: Alex on the bass, Daniel on the keys, Carlos on drums and David on lead guitar.

Mikey: Are all of these guys professionals out of San Diego?

Charlie: I’ve got a few session players from Mexico, too. Those guys are unbelievable on how they play, and so humble. Their energies are so much fun because everybody wants to be there and we all have the same goal.

Gio brings out a Prosciutto and Arugula Pizza with mozzarella, parmesan and truffle oil. Charlie and I were full before, but it is easy for us to make room when this beauty hits the table. I grab a piece before Gio removes his hand from the pan.

Gio: For the dough I use a starter yeast that I feed three times a day that is over 100 years old and it comes from Naples. We burn 100 percent oak in the fire oven, so it will give the crust the chariness, smoky flavor.

Mikey: Bless your heart, my son. This pizza is … I feel like … I’ve never had anything like that carry my palate.

Charlie: Wow! So good!

By this time, Charlie and I are stuffed but Gio insists on us trying dessert and brings out three: a chocolate budino with sea salt, caramel and whipped cream; a panna cotta which is a heavy cream cooked with vanilla bean, a little bit of gelatin and topped with strawberry marinade with champagne; and tiramisu.

Mikey: Oh my goodness, fat kid heaven.

Gio: Tiramisu is an Italian dessert, a coffee dessert. It’s a mousse made with mascarpone, coffee and layered with some lady fingers.

Mikey: Some ladies’ fingers?

Gio: No, lady fingers the cookies. The dessert is very rich and strong on the coffee.

Charlie: It’ll wake me up.

Mikey: I’m going to pass out.

Discussion of who is eating what dessert ensues and we both shrug our shoulders and have a go at everything.

Mikey: These desserts are next level. The panna cotta is sooo refreshing. You think the cream would be really heavy, but it’s not too bad. I think if I went through the whole thing I would pass out though. The budino is next level and I think my favorite, but the tiramisu is delicious, too. Very coffee-y.

Charlie: Good coffee. That ain’t no Folgers!

Mikey: True that. OK, before I pass out, where do I hear all of your music?

Charlie: You can hear it on Pandora, Spotify and I’m on iTunes too, under “rock” and the album is self titled.

Mikey: When did you put out your self-titled album and where did you record it?

Charlie: March of 2015 at Signature Sound, my favorite place. Both albums where done there.

Mikey: So you have another album coming out.

Charlie: Not yet. I’m still pushing the first one really hard because it has my single on it, “Red Gloves,” which is the video song. The second album is ready to go and I already have tracks for the third one already in my mind. I’m dying to get back in the studio again.

Mikey: When are you going to get the second album out?

Charlie: I’m not sure yet. I have a few things going on. Making sure that it gets released right.

Mikey: You’re looking to get picked up?

Charlie: Definitely. I have a few people interested. I’m just figuring out who’s the best one for me. I’m not in a hurry. I write every day. I’m happy. I’m good. I just know what I want and I can’t settle.

Mikey: What do you want?

Charlie: Honestly, I want as many people in the whole world to hear my music and be moved by it. That’s all I ever wanted, for you to feel it. I feel like the world has lost its sense of emotion. I think there’s a bunch of robots walking around. If I can just bring you back a little bit to touch you, then that’s why I’m here. I feel it, it’s my favorite thing. It’s the reason I’m here, it saved my life a million times and it’s the most important thing to me. So if I can feel the way I do about it and you can just feel a tiny bit of it, then I’ve done my job.

Mikey: You’re amazing Charlie Rae and so was that food!