Restaurant Review: Italian favorites succeed

If you think the true measure of an Italian chef is by his pasta, you are simply wrong. Good pasta is essential and bad pasta can ruin your meal, but can it really distinguish a chef from the rest of the pack? No. So what is the culinary hurdle that these cuoci Italiani must soar over? As you will find at La Perla, it’s the calamari.

When you order calamari there’s always a risk of getting a pile of hard, fried pieces of rubber. But there’s no need to furrow your brow or give your appetizer choice a second thought at La Perla because the calamari is spectacular. Quite possibly the most impressive dish offered, the fried coating seems to melt away and is anything but greasy, and the squid inside is tender. It is with this dish that head chef and owner Vittorio Testa jumps the hurdle to go leaps and bounds beyond calamari at other Italian restaurants. Another appetizer to choose is the mozzarella di buffalo – fresh mozzarella made from buffalo milk and tomatoes. Each appetizer or salad will cost you around $9 to $12, but they serve to whet your palette and prepare you for the main course.

In true Italian tradition, every meal at La Perla is served with a bowl of pasta or is accompanied by a side of spaghetti with marinara sauce. The pasta is good. It won’t knock you out of your chair and have you calling home about it, but it towers above other Italian restaurants’ in the area. What separates this tomato sauce from the pack is its spices. The blend of spices swirl together to surprise you with a kick of flavor that can’t be found in most restaurants around D.C., let alone the spaghetti and tomato sauce you whipped up in your dorm room kitchen. But if you like it bland, skip the sauce at La Perla.

Most of the entr?es are standard Italian fare. The chicken parmesan is good but doesn’t stand out. Chef Testa has mastered authentic Italian cuisine and doesn’t slack off, but this dish is less than innovative. There is something to be said in keeping with tradition; however, the customary chicken parmesan, and many of the entr?es that simply follow long-established recipes for about $20, are not going to keep customers coming back.

The linguine vittorio just may, though. With a base of pasta smothered with red sauce and flavored with garlic, brandy, dry vermouth and other herbs and spices, it is full of flavor. It also includes “medallions” of lobster, which is a more sophisticated term for “little pieces.” However, unlike a lot of seafood and pasta dishes, this mixes together perfectly. The lobster is tender and is complemented by the spices’ bite.

What isn’t as pleasing is the d?cor at La Perla. It’s obvious that this restaurant aims to have Italian art and style, but it borders on tacky. The large chandeliers sparkle with the bright fluorescent light from the dessert cooler that welcomes patrons as they enter into the restaurant. The dining room is full of beautiful accents, but they seem overdone.

But that could be Testa’s creed: be thorough. He is constantly seen in the restaurant – directing the well-trained and attentive wait staff, checking food orders, yelling in Italian and – luckily for patrons – giving free shots of amaretto or sambuca (two thick liquors) to finish your meal the traditional Italian way.

You should try La Perla for the pasta and the entr?es, and for those special dishes such as calamari and lobster. And if you choose right, you can have a spectacular meal.

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