UPDATE 9/22/20: Since this story was published, there have been some changes. Due to family obligations, Chef Mazie moved out of Connecticut. Instead of Stella's and Mazie's, the restaurant is now Stella’s African Eatery. For now the hours remain the same, although Chef Stella is looking into providing dinner service in October. Stella had been aware that Mazie leaving was a possibility. “It wasn’t a big surprise but I was a little taken aback," Stella says. "But we keep it moving and we’re still friends and I think we’ll always be friends. And we’ll have this first experience under our belts to start our dream kitchen.”
Open just 15 hours a week with no outdoor signage, Stella’s and Mazie’s on Capitol Avenue in Hartford is truly a hidden gem. “People don’t know we’re here,” says deLinda Jagne, aka Chef Stella. “It’s kinda nice to have people look for us.” People have been looking a lot lately. Jagne says business has roughly tripled at the luncheonette since March. “I think it’s due to more folks being home, or working from home,” Jagne says. “That potential customer base that wasn’t ever able to make it in for lunch, because they work so far away, are now able to get here or able to order through DoorDash and Uber Eats.”
Edna Carrington, aka Chef Mazie, is the yin to Jagne’s yang, and runs the catering side of the operation. The women named their business Stella’s and Mazie’s to honor their mothers and grandmothers who inspired them to cook. The fusion of the talents of these two Hartford natives produces a fusion of flavors that’s truly unique. “My family is from the Senegal and Gambia region of West Africa, and Hartford has such a high West Indian and Caribbean influence, and our families are both from the South,” Jagne says. “We just decided to fuse all of that because, historically, Southern and Caribbean cuisine originated in West Africa, so it was easy.”
The menu changes daily and features three entrées ($9) — one is always plant based — a handful of sides ($4), a dessert ($3) and a cornbread ($1.50). Luckily, customers aren’t forced to make a choice. For $18 you can get some of everything. On the day of my visit the entrées are lamb domoda (stewed in a peanut butter sauce), jerk chicken (Caribbean spice rub) and eggplant caponata (onions, peppers, capers stewed in tomato sauce). Despite my unconventional aversion to peanut butter, the lamb is my favorite among three excellent dishes.
The accompanying sides are jollof rice, jasmine rice, sautéed cabbage, garden salad and potato salad. In addition to the catering, Carrington handles the desserts and cornbread, which are always vegan. On this day she has whipped up banana cranberry muffins and sweet and spicy cornbread. Everything is fresh, authentic and flavorful. “People like to know that they’re getting fresh food,” Carrington says. “When people come in they’re excited about the food being prepared fresh every day, and during the course of the day. They can actually see what we’re doing here because our kitchen is open.”
It’s a small building that seats only 16 at full capacity, with room for 14 more on the outdoor patio. The customer base has always been primarily takeout so the restrictions on indoor dining didn’t have a negative effect on Stella’s and Mazie’s. They feel they’ve kept their base and added a lot more. “The whole movement behind Black Lives Matter and people buying from Black businesses or giving more support to Black businesses may have also contributed to it,” Jagne says.
The pair met at Lincoln Culinary Institute in Hartford in 2014 and both attended the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Asti, Italy, before opening on Capitol Avenue in April 2016. This is the only restaurant Jagne has ever worked in, other than an externship in Italy. Carrington has worked at a few. “Have I learned a lot in four years? Absolutely,” Jagne says. “Are there some things that I will never do again? Absolutely. It’s been a learning experience but the ride has been a great one. (“Agreed,” Carrington says.) I wouldn’t have started any other way.”
Stella's African Eatery
461 Capitol Ave., Hartford
Hours: Tue.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Patio is wheelchair accessible