I have just about nothing but good things to say about Perla, Gabe Stulman's Italian restaurant with Michael Toscano running the kitchen. I love the beef tongue and the lamb breast and the garganelli with tripe. I love the audacity of a man who puts foie gras on pancakes and serves a beef cheek sandwich for lunch. I like the cocktails, I like the potato chips all'amitriciana, and the burger makes me see funny and stutter out sentences I don't complete.
So far, there's only one thing I'd call even a little bit inconsistent: the pizza.
Toscano cooks a great deal of the menu in a wood-burning oven: roast rabbit, chicken cacciatore, a bone-in rib eye. (And gets more creative, too. "Sometimes he cooks whole animal heads as specials," a waitress told us in a hushed, delighted breath. "They're amazing, but you walk by the oven and there are just heads staring at you—it's something out of a horror movie.") So if you've got a wood-burning oven in this pizza-crazed city, pizza makes an awful lot of sense. Toscano first served his pies on a late-night bar menu, but recently moved them to their Friday-Saturday-Sunday lunch menu instead. There are five, which span a reasonably typical new-school, whole-pie spectrum: a Margherita, one with soppressata, one with mushrooms, one with sausage and a broccoli rabe pesto.
We've been three times for pizza (and Toscano was there each time), and we found very good pizza twice, somewhat disappointing pizza once. What happened? Let's break it down.
Every time the toppings of the pie worked well; well proportioned tasty ingredients. On one, sautéed brown beech mushrooms with garlic, tons of melty mozzarella and no small pour of olive oil; on another, a salty broccoli rabe pesto, crumbles of sausage, and caciocavallo cheese. On one visit, the crust was the equal of those toppings: well-charred and pliant, it had that satisfying crackle when the slices were pulled apart, the crust airy and steaming-hot with an audible crunch as you bite through with light, bready innards. But on another, the crust suffered a few problems—the underside was quite pale, with no blistering or bubbles to speak of; the flavor was fine, the salting of the dough sufficient, but it didn't have enough rise and lift to it. It was the sort of pie where you leave the crusts on your plate uneaten.
That pie also arrived less than crisp-hot: it was warm enough, sure, but the cheese had set a bit and the crust was barely warm. Even then, it wasn't bad; if we were at a less exciting restaurant, we would've been happy enough. It's just that Perla sets its standards so high that it does come off seeming a bit of a disappointment.
Still, right now, we're batting two for three. While acknowledging the inconsistencies, we're pretty happy with how they average out. Perla is young yet, and we look forward to a day when all the pizzas are as tasty as the better ones we had. Either way, there are still any number of things on this lunch menu that'll make you happy.
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