BY CRAIG CAVALLO
You know the restaurant is Italian, but that’s only because this town can gossip. Inside, exposed brick and wooden rafters are the only hints at rustic Italian. There is not a stitch of red, white, or green in the dining room at Perla and it leaves chef Michael Toscano’s food to do the significant talking.
Perla is restaurateur Gabe Stulman’s fourth installment in what has become known as his Little Wisco Empire. If you happen to get a seat at the bar here you can enjoy some of the city’s better Italian preparations at what proves to be another stage for the production of Brian Bartels’ cocktails. One of these has been dubbed Tombstone Sunday Night’s, a bourbon based drink with Amaro Montenegro and a homemade pepperoni bitters. It is a stirred version of that Sunday night when the only friends you could get to come over are a pepperoni pizza and a six pack.
The drink suggests Perla may not take itself too seriously, but on a separate visit, scrawled in chalk on the wall behind the chef’s counter, which seats ten and allows a view into the mouth of Perla’s wood burning oven, was the addition of a whole roasted lamb head ($38). It stands as the piece de resistance, and should you inquire as to its preparation, the knowledgeable staff will enthusiastically oblige. It is served with caramelized fennel, lemon yogurt, and salsa verde, but not before it’s poached and eventually finished in the wood oven. If you’re wondering what happens to the brain, it’s mixed with a fresh, full fat cow’s milk cheese from Northern Italy called Robiolina.
Should you decide on the lamb head, it will come after antipasti and primi. The antipasti are where this Robiolina makes its first appearance, accompanying lobster and caviar ($19). The dish sounds good on paper but when it is all dressed with a tart, leek vinaigrette it has a hard time coming together. The cheese is simply too rich, it muted the sweet, delicate flavor that lobster loves to show off, and the caviar was applied with too tight a hand.
Getting Blue Prawns ($15) flown in from Hawaii is a crazy idea, but it makes complete sense when you taste them with browned butter over a smear of yogurt after they have been finished in a wood oven. When they arrive at the table you are encouraged to suck the head and the ensuing action looks and sounds like a cut from a Dario Argento film.If crustaceans were ever a campfire food, this is exactly what they would taste like.
Chef Toscano uses the menu’s primi section to show he is no stranger to fresh pastas. He was the Executive Chef at Manzo, Eataly’s flagship restaurant, when it opened in August of 2010. Before his stint at Manzo, he earned his stripes at Babbo, working alongside longtime Executive Chef Frank Langello. Orecchiette with prosciutto and ramp pesto ($15) is a seasonal take on the classic “little ears” pasta traditionally served with sausage and broccoli rabe. Spaghetti carbonara is on offer in the form of cavatelli incatenati ($12). Incatenati means “imprisoned” and explains the tight sauce, made from guanciale, pecorino, and egg, that bear hugs the ribbed cavatelli. It’s a truly harmonious dish, rich and hearty, but once the chunks of guanciale render their fat they become tough nuggets of pork that could be avoided if they were first sliced instead of cubed.
The use of an entire lamb’s head is an homage to Italian peasantry and this head-to-tail philosophy continues to run through the secondi portion of the menu. Should you decide on the pork loin ($29), it will include shoulder and belly from the same animal. Your lamb entree ($30) will feature both saddle and breast. There is a classic NY Strip ($35) to appease parents visiting from out of town, and a charred beef tongue ($24) is available for their hip, city dwelling offspring.
The food is flirting with perfection in the fourth act of Gabe Stulman’s Little Wisco Play. His dining room is another slick setting for the execution of his vision. Framed Bugatti and Leonetto Cappiello posters have been replaced with close-up portraits of rappers, and should you happen to use the bathroom, you will be watched over by a photo of Atlanta’s Dungeon Family. The food, the service, and the beverage program are all in cahoots with the photos and the playlist that sounds like a mixtape blasting from a Honda Civic in Bed-Stuy in the ’90′s.They remind us that Perla is very far from being just another link in a chain of Italian restaurants here in the city.