The Clumsy Italian.
We were in DC, staying at the River Inn and heading back to Seattle from a trip back to Virginia. We had one night left in town and went looking for a restaurant after a long day sightseeing and a bad lunch in Georgetown. We got to La Perla about sunset and I was immediately excited because, as a chef, I love good - and beautifully-decorated - Italian restaurants. The menu was fairly traditional, so there was a lot of dishes I've made over the years, running two Italian restaurants among my other stops. We got wine, a bottle of Re Manfredi Aglianico that we sell in our own wine shop. My GF ordered the Pasta Genovese Pesto and I had the Carbonara, a dish I love and make frequently.
I'll admit that I'm a pasty for atmosphere. I think that restaurateurs who show care in how their place looks and feels usually can be counted on to deliver on the table, too. The wine was good and the price was reasonable but her Genovese was dry, loaded with what looked like Parmesan cheese out of the little cardboard can, and actually stuck together in clumps when she picked it up on her fork. It tasted okay, not exceptional, and we had to get refilled on water THREE times to get it all down.
Carbonara is one of the most voluptuous, sinful dishes in the Italian food canon. It has cream, egg yolks, bacon, butter and cheese in it. It should be creamy, decadent, cheesy, smoky from the bacon, and trap little pockets of steam that release as you eat down the mound. La Perla's was sticky, dry, again loaded with grainy Parmesan, and had little of the smoky flavor that distinguishes the dish. The pasta was nicely cooked but the sauce flavor was mostly about cream and cheese and if there was any egg added to it, I couldn't taste it. It was NOT thick and creamy but rather dry and scant. The pasta was barely coated.
I wasn't as put off by the prices as some of the other posters were. Yeah, it was a little pricey but it's DC, for Pete's Sake, and tourists like me expect a LITTLE gouge. The service, however, was clueless. We got a young man who seemed baffled by simple questions about the menu and didn't offer to GO ASK, the cardinal rule for every server who has EVER worked for me. If somebody asks a question you can't answer, GO ASK. I used to give my cell number to servers, so they could call me when I was off. This kid just said he didn't know and moved on to the next thing.
The La Perla website seems inordinately concerned with promoting their stainless steel kitchen - "Il Cuore (The Heart) of La Perla" - and the chef, Vittorio Testa, loaded with a lot of photos of the stainless and of Vittorio, looking very much like Mark Feuerstein, the actor, only older. THAT, folks, is the OTHER side of the fine decor and the care given to your restaurant's interior: The notion that, once you look good, the job is done.
It isn't. And La Perla MAY - MAY - have just had one bad night when we showed up. But I doubt it. I think sometimes restaurants get all happy with their press and fawning customer comments and get sloppy. And IMHO, that's what is amiss at La Perla.
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