24 Minetta Lane, New York NY 10014 (b/n Sixth and Thompson; map); 212-933-1824; perlanyc.com
Service: Casually competent
Setting: Tavern-like space that fits in well on Minetta Lane
Must-Haves: Garganelli, beef tounge
Cost: Starters and pasta $12+, entrees $24+
Reviews generally start with an introduction, but I'm going to start this one with beef tongue. Because as I sit at my computer it keeps popping into my head, the memory of it, as it has been ever since my visit to Perla last week. Beef tongue with a whisper-thin crust that gives you just the slightest resistance before you get to the impossibly tender meat underneath. Beef tongue that's been in brine for a week before it's braised, then charred. "I can't stop thinking about that beef tongue," confessed the friend I'd brought to dinner the next day, in a conspiratorial tone, over coffee. It does that to you.
Common threads weave through Gabriel Stulman's West Village properties, both past and present. They're all essentially neighborhood restaurants with sufficiently ambitious menus to attract those from all over, without losing that dressed-down, "come in and eat" sensibility. They're all nose-to-tail, farm-to-table without trying too hard to evangelize either. Strong cocktail menus, Fedora and Perla's from Brian Bartels, thought-provoking drinks with the balance and presence of classics.
But each restaurant seems a clear reflection of the man running the kitchen. You wouldn't confuse Jim McDuffee's sort of American bistro menu at Joseph Leonard with Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly's playful, adventurous dishes at Fedora. And you wouldn't confuse either with Perla, Stulman's latest, an Italian restaurant with executive chef Michael Toscano that shows off the chef's knack for bold flavors and treating different meats right.
At this point, we've done so many "rustic Italian" restaurant reviews that it's hard to write a sentence you haven't read before. (Even a month ago, we were wondering at Il Buco Alimentari whether we had reached our Italian limit.) But Toscano's menu succeeds in simultaneously being ambitious and accessible. It's a celebration of animal parts, but not the sort of place that's daring you to try anything outlandish. They're simply on the menu because Toscano does a damn good job with them.
Yes, the beef tongue, of course. But even the snacks start off meaty, with the potato chips all'amitriciana ($5). You could imagine a chef riffing off that dish with something simple, like tiny bits of guanciale floating around a pile of chips sprinkled in pecorino. That's be an easy way out, though. Toscano crisps guanciale that he turns into a powder with dehydrated tomato and garlic, and that's what coats these chips in a lick-your-fingers-afterward kind of way, like barbecue dust but unabashedly meaty.
The agnolotti al sugo d'arrosto ($15), too, are meatier than they look, tidy little parcels whose delicacy masks their decadence. The beef inside is shoulder that's been braised for 14 hours before it's bound with egg, Parmesan, and escarole (which doesn't really interrupt the richness, but that's okay with us). They're dressed in the beef braising liquid which, if you let it sit on the plate too long, will start to solidify; better to eat immediately, then, dragging each little pocket through the sultry sauce.
New York editor Max Falkowitz was dead-on when he characterized Perla as a restaurant where you'd say "Wait, there's tripe in this?" In the garganelli with tripe, guanciale, tomato, and chile ($14), it's barely perceptible, just a slight background funk, the guanciale so dominant that you hardly know it's there. Toscano cooks the tripe in vinegar and vanilla before it's ground and integrated into the sauce. It's a pleasant reminder that offal doesn't have to be, well, offal-y; there's no imperative that less commonly used cuts leap out and hit you in the face. They're simply ingredients like other ingredients, and here they blend beautifully. The pasta itself is quite thick but cooked to an optimal hardy al dente that holds the substantial sauce just as you'd want it to.
It's almost mandatory for ramps to appear on New York menus this time of year, so the orecchiette with sausage and ramp pesto ($15) hardly came as a surprise (awesome though it sounded). The housemade orecchiette themselves weren't quite the caliber of the other pastas, either the substantial yet tender garganelli or the ethereally delicate agnolotti, but that's a high bar to clear. Even if they were a little tougher than they could've been, they were perfect little cradles for the little chunks of sausage (from Pat LaFrieda) with fennel and onions. The pesto of ramps and Parmesan coats it all; no matter how attentively you taste for it, it doesn't really say "ramps," but regardless, it's a great plate of food.
As I've already admitted, I'm still thinking about that beef tongue; but I'd be hard-pressed to choose between that and the lamb. Or the duck. At good Italian restaurants I don't usually order secondi, because I'm just too happy with great pasta to order anything else (and value-wise, I'd rather a $15 plate of food that makes me happy than a $30 plate that does. That's $15 more to spend on wine).
But at Perla, you can't miss the entrees; you can't. It's the rare restaurant where the entrees, rather than the starters, are really the star of the show.
There are times when you get "lamb two ways" or "duck two ways" and wonder why both were necessary; but in both dishes here, each component justified the other. The lamb breast, for instance, of the lamb saddle and breast ($30) was conversation-stopping, eyes-closed fantastic. It's a slim rectangle of fatty meat that's braised on the bone, with the meat then removed and pressed overnight, then portioned out into long pieces, rubbed with sugar, lemon, and mint, and heavily charred for service. It's a terrible food cliche to say that meat is melt-in-the-mouth, but this is, actually dissolving on the tongue. You couldn't eat a whole plate of this but wow, is that first bite delicious. So it's paired with loin that's grilled to medium rare, and served over fregola salad with roasted shallots and charred shishito peppers—just enough to calm things down before you dive back into that lamb breast.
And then there's the saba glazed duck with spring peas, cabbage, and pancetta ($28), the breast rendered skin-side down so that the skin crisps up, while the leg is confited and crisped up at service, the sweet-musty saba glaze an appealing, almost-fruity pair for the leg meat. Underneath waits a bed of cabbage and peas cooked up with pancetta, simultaneously the fresh green taste of spring and a rich, satisfying stew.
What impresses me about Stulman's restaurants—and they do impress me, particularly as Fedora and now Perla have been added to the mix—is how they simultaneously share so many elements, and yet are so clearly the product of a single, talented chef. And how, at the same time, his aesthetic continues to evolve. Perla still seems very much the neighborhood restaurant, but it's stately and sophisticated, a restaurant that belongs on Minetta Lane, with all that name connotes. It's a restaurant that feels of the moment, but feels like it has staying power, as well.
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