It's a different kind of mug shot. Along one whole wall of Stella's Deli hang coffee mugs. Maybe 60 of them. It started several years ago with just a dozen or so, and now Barbara Banno is worried she's going to have to find a new wall for regulars' coffee vessels. • Stella Banno was a nun in Queens, N.Y. She was patient and loving and evidently inclined to really talk to the kids in her life during regular big Italian dinners. In honor of her great aunt, Barbara Banno and her partner Jeanne Kunkle named their little diner Stella's. A black and white photo of her in her habit graces the menu, and in fact much of Gulfport appears to have a regular Stella's habit. Even the dogs at the cafe tables outside all seem to know each other.
For the past three years the duo has brought eggs, pancakes, and all things morning food to the locals, Banno adding a sideline as a city councilwoman a year and a half ago. At the diner, she circulates out front while Kunkle tends to the kitchen, which is wincingly small. The rest of the staff scoots around her and head cook Karen Hardy, the kind of eggs-over-easy, side-of-rye dance perfected in mom-and-pop diners and delis across the country.
It's not just breakfast. Lunch was added a while back, but it's with morning foods that Stella's hits its stride: Kahwa coffee, crisp-but-not-too-crisp bacon, corned beef hash ($7.95) that's clearly made in-house and served with a couple of eggs and toast from local Giovanni's Bakery in Largo (go over easy or poached on the eggs, a little yolk adding the perfect lushness to the cubes of flavorful hash).
Savory gets the nod over sweet at Stella's, the pancakes ($3.25 for one) and thick-cut French toast ($5.25) solid but not transcendent. A lineup of Benedicts is more memorable, whether the Florentine ($7.95) with its flurry of fresh spinach wilted just so under a cap of lemony Hollandaise, or the lox version ($9.95), thin-sliced Bermuda onion and tomato accompanying generous swaths of Pacific smoked salmon, the kind of assemblage that can make a pair of English muffins seem like a party.
Beyond the electric lime-green exterior, decor at Stella's is more an accumulation of stuff. A Pittsburgh Steelers terrible towel, a trophy sailfish, Asian paper lanterns with a bamboo motif, a sign that reads "Order what you want, eat what you get" (something Sister Stella might have gently admonished those kids in Queens). Black and white checkerboard floor and a long dining counter give it a sweet, 21st century Mayberry feel.
Service is suitably casual and quick at noon, getting folks in and out. The lunch fare may also cause a fillip of nostalgia. When was the last time you saw liverwurst and onion sandwiches ($4.95) on a menu? Stella's does a traditional reuben ($7.95), the meat with an intriguing allspice/clove edge to it, but the best lunch option is the fried green tomato BLT ($6.95), the crisp, cold iceberg, crunchy fried tomatoes and salty bacon getting a lick of spicy mayo to come together elegantly. (As a side, the house-fried chips tower over the potato salad or coleslaw.)
House wines ring in at a very reasonable $4 a glass, and there are mimosas and Bloody Marys at breakfast (made with wine-based vodka to accommodate the beer-and-wine-only license), and Stella Artois on tap (natch). Nothing fancy, but it fits the breakfast-all-day vibe of Stella's, the oh-so-Gulfport sense of inclusivity and community less than a block from the water's edge. Banno better work on finding that new mug wall.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.