I went to Perla last night, the new restaurant from Michael Toscano, for an early Memorial day dinner. For those who don't know, he was the chef at Babbo, then Manzo, and now he has left the shadows of Batali and opened up what I believe is one of the top Italian restaurants in the city. Yes, I said it. In a city full of some of the best Italian in the country, the meal i had there last night was on that level. I don't know if I can say it is on the same level as Babbo yet, but it was definitely better than Manzo (which I also liked but that was after Toscano had already left).
Before I get to the food, the restaurant is situated on the small quiet street of Minetta Lane right down the block from Minetta Tavern. If you aren't looking for it you probably would not even know it existed. And honestly, even though I am giving them big time props I am hoping it stays a secret. But I know it is only a matter of time before it blows up and becomes the "next big thing". The press has actually already discovered it and I think the NY Times gave it two stars.
I was greeted warmly by the staff and shown to a table in the small, yet cozy and warm dining room. The tables near the bar are quite close together, but then there are some red leather banquettes towards the back of the restaurant where the open kitchen is. I really liked the decor and atmosphere. Very laid back, with some eclectic types of music playing throughout the meal. The crowd varied from older couples, to families with younger children. Basically, this is a place where anyone and everyone is welcome.
Every staff member that I came in contact with was super friendly and attentive. My water was constantly refilled along with my bread plate. The waiter came over to check on me periodically (in a non-annoying way) and even engage in some friendly conversation throughout the meal.
Alright now onto the good stuff. The menu is quite large, meaning if you like great food like myself it can be daunting narrowing down your choices. I saw a lot of Babbo and Manzo in the concept of the menu and in many of the dishes. The cavatelli with duck ragu and foie gras soudned identical to the fusilli with the same exact ingredients I had at Manzo earlier this year. After questioning the waiter, he confirmed it is the same dish but just the different pasta. Except for one minor detail. They shave frozen foie gras over the pasta at the table and let it melt into the pasta. Sounded pretty crazy! But since I had the dish at Manzo (and it was great), I wanted to try something new from the menu
It is divided into antipasti, pastas, entrees, and contorni. Going for broke I had to try something from each section as usual.
My first plate would be the seared foie gras with cherries and crispy pork testa.This was so incredible! One of the best foie gras dishes I have ever had. And this was right after I had another amazing preparation at Dovetail 2 days ago. Seared to perfect, pink on the outside and it had a nice sauce that I forget what was in it. The kicker was the crispy testa, basically a pork head croquette. Sinful, fatty, goodness, Fat on top of fat and so delectably delicioso.
Agnolotti al sugo d'arrosto - Little pillows of braised short rib love. Ten to an order. There was also a little escarole inside to cut the richness. Sitting in a sauce of beef drippings. Sprinkled with some pecorino romano. Sounds simple, but the ingredients sing and stand on their own wonderfully. Nothing left when I was done with this pasta. Another similar dish from Manzo I believe.
Saba glazed duck with persimmon, cabbage, pancetta- Such a wonderful dish! It was perfectly executed. The breast was seared rare with a salty crispy skin and the confit leg fell off the bone and managed to have a wonderful crust on the outside in its own right. There was lots of chunky bits of pancetta dispersed around the cabbage. The saba (grape must) added a beautiful and intense sweetness that I love and is the perfect pairing to duck. Very similar to the outstanding duck dish at Babbo. Not surpring since Toscano used to cook at Babbo.
Polenta with asiago and ricotta- Homey, comforting and cheesy bliss. I love polenta and this was the perfect accompaniment to the duck. I will never ever pass up polenta, and the asiago (think Italian blue cheese) and ricotta added a different twist on the classic.
At this point I could have left happy but since the meal was so perfect I solidered on for dessert. More polenta!
Polenta upside down cake with apples and figs- This was a very nice dessert. Think the bottom of a corn muffin baked with the apples and figs on the bottom, then they flip it over after baking like a traditional upside down cake. Then it is topped with olive oil gelato (I subbed it for the vanilla) and caramel sauce. It was remarkably moist, with a sweet corn flavor. The apples and figs were nice and the olive oil gelato was super fresh and also acted as a palate cleanser to cut through the sweetness. Great ending to the perfect meal.
The only funny thing that happened really was not a fault of the restaurant at all. At one point you could feel the ground below you shaking as the train came through! Everyone in the restaurant kind of looked at each other like what is happening? Some out of towners at a nearby table really got a kick of it. They must think that is a norm in New York.
The kitchen is turning out some magical dishes. This is in the running for the best meal top to bottom I've had this year. It has immediately joined the list among my favorite Italian restaurants. Prices are reasonable but can add up of course depending upon how many dishes you order. With all that I ordered the bill came to just over $100 with tax and tip. A relative bargain for the quality of food and service that I encountered.