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You’ve seen this startling portrait of Mos Def—face half-covered, fingers like a gun against his temple—but chances are you haven’t experienced it framed, hanging above the silver hairdos of a wrinkled West Village couple deciding between the steak for two and the chicken. Rustic Italian restaurants come along every five minutes in New York, but Perla is doing things differently.
For example, when you ask the waitress which pasta to get, she won’t auto-reply that they’re all so good. She’ll talk up a favorite with giddy enthusiasm, like the pillow-shaped agnolotti, plump with braised beef and Parmesan and dressed in a sticky reduction of drippings ($15). Or the springy tubes of garganelli, fat but light on their feet, rich with tomato sauce and the salty chews of guanciale and tripe ($14).
And you can relax at the new Minetta Lane spot because your almost-finished plates won’t disappear while you’re not looking. In fact, the waitress will draw your entire table’s attention to your last, neglected bite of crust-less PB&J—cold foie gras, cherry jam, and pistachio butter. “Do it, do it,” she’ll chant like a frat boy, egging you on to finish your food. Seriously, you should. Because Perla is both expensive and exquisite and because only a fool squanders his last bite.
Michael Toscano, previously at Eataly’s Manzo and Batali’s Babbo, is the chef. His rustic Italian cooking is careful and refined, but you mustn’t be: After you’ve eaten the three sweet blue prawns in brown butter and yogurt ($15), use your fingers to pick up their heads. Noisily suck out the juices, which taste like a campfire that burns by the sea. When you finish your bowl of tender orecchiette ($15), mop up what’s left of that slick ramp pesto with warm focaccia, and commit the quiet flavors of spring to your memory. Clean the ribs of the whole crisp, roasted branzino ($32), but don’t stop there: Use the rounded tip of your knife to dig out its wee cheeks and offer them to your favorite person at the table. Forget Twitter—let a parade of clean plates boast your victories!
Restaurateur Gabriel Stulman named his company Little Wisco in honor of the place where he went to college, Wisconsin. And like his other spots, Fedora and Joseph Leonard, when Perla is on its game, you get effortless, Midwestern-style hospitality that puts you completely at ease. The space on Minetta Lane is cozy, not in the Craigslist-code-for-cramped sense, but actually cozy (though the tables can be too teeny for a clutter of big plates).
It might be 4:30 in the afternoon when Perla opens, but the dining room is already darkly romantic, the candles lit. There are massive antiqued mirrors reflecting light and the cocktail rings that catch it, heavy wooden ceiling beams and the kind of burgundy banquettes you’ll find yourself stroking absentmindedly because they’re just so goddamn soft. On a recent weeknight, the woman at the table next to me realized that all the best songs from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack were playing, one after the other, and she squealed about it to her date, a stern news reporter. As if on cue, the music switched to hip-hop.
Perla’s long menu is divided traditionally—antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni—and if you’re wearing your eatin’ pants, you could certainly pick a dish from each section to create a proper Italian dinner. But don’t feel like you have to. You can build your own feast by sharing a few plates that call to you—I suggest the delightful sugar snap and snow pea salad with goat’s-milk ricotta and pink moons of pickled rhubarb ($14) followed by the stunning fan of lamb saddle with corn and chile ($30). This city got you down? Go alone, belly up to the bar, and let a glass of wine with a bowl of gnocchi in tomato sauce work its magic ($12).
Like the savory dishes, desserts ($10) at Perla are more complex than they seem. The fior di latte panna cotta looks as monochromatic as your most boring aunt’s wardrobe, but accessorized with a smear of intensely bitter grapefruit puree, it’s daring. The chocolate crostata is dark as can be but balances with a layer of sliced bananas and a blond caramel. The date cheesecake is served at the right temperature, not fridge-cold, and it’s so light in texture that it disappears like a feathery snowflake on your tongue.
Sadly, no matter which adventure you choose, it will lead to that moment when the bill arrives, paper-clipped to a Scopa card—an Italian game whose rules I can never quite decipher, even when sober. To cushion the blow, Perla sends you off with a tender sugar cookie, dusted with ground fennel seeds. No, it doesn’t matter how full you are. You should eat that, too.
Correction: A previous version stated that Gabriel Stulman’s home state was Wisconsin; it is Virginia.