- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

Step inside La Perla, and you're transported back in time to an old-fashioned Italian restaurant. With its sky-blue Venetian draperies, flags from several regions of Italy, plants adorned with tiny white lights, Tuscan pots and jugs and, in the background, the arias of Italian tenors, La Perla brings the old days to mind.
Washington's newest Italian restaurant, at Pennsylvania Avenue and 26th Street NW, has no photographs of erupting volcanoes, but there's a delightful group portrait of Neapolitan actors (including, of course, la bella Sophia). Many of the main courses come with a side of good spaghetti in a fresh-tasting tomato sauce.
Chef-owner Vittorio Testa, who previously owned Filomena on Wisconsin Avenue below M Street, is proud of his new creation, which is replete with his personal touches: pale blue Murano chandeliers and wall sconces to match the curtains, a beautiful life-size replica of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" in tile behind a gurgling green glass fountain; two glass cases at the entrance of the restaurant, one holding Mr. Testa's mementos from around the Mediterranean and the other filled with delectable pastries, which can be purchased to take home as well as eaten on the premises. (The ladies restroom, by the way, is a Victorian splendor with the exception of a plastic wastebasket and worth a visit.)
Service is attentive (and sometimes obsequious); the inviting bar is decorated with a frieze of classical scenes; and there is an extensive wine list, with bottles beginning at about $20.
Mr. Testa designed the menu, and his pastas are excellent. Fettuccine Alfredo is buttery and creamy, with the pasta nicely al dente. Linguine Vittorio combines chunks of lobster with sun-dried tomatoes in the kitchen's basic tomato sauce with the addition of some herbs, garlic and a little vermouth.
One of the simplest of all pasta dishes spaghetti aglio e olio is a combination of olive oil and garlic. Mr. Testa adds a sprinkling of parsley, pine nuts and golden raisins, which adds a bit of complexity to a simple and delicious dish, though a little less oil would have sufficed. Pasta dishes can be halved as appetizer portions, but before you order, be sure to ask whether your main course comes with a serving of pasta. Many do.
Another star in chef Testa's repertoire is the calamari, crisply fried. Served with either a marinara sauce or a tartar sauce, these bite-sized pieces of squid are tender, fresh, crisp and piping hot. They're a perfect first course and are available as a main course as well.
Zuppa di vongole, a spicy fresh clam-and-tomato chowder, would have been an excellent starter but for an excess of salt. (Reminder to the chefs of Washington: Spice is fine; oversalting is not.)
Other seafood dishes do not fare as well. Both a grilled rockfish at lunch and a sauteed rainbow trout at dinner were close to tasteless. Although our waiter assured us that both the rockfish and the trout were fresh, neither had the delicacy or flavor of the water that gives fresh fish its unique delectability. The trout was mushy, saved by the asparagus served with it. The dish trota majestic is topped with crabmeat and a few sun-dried tomatoes.
Similarly, the marriage of jumbo shrimp and mozzarella in a tomato sauce is not a successful one. The cheese does nothing for the shrimp, and the accompanying ubiquitous spaghetti with tomato sauce doesn't enhance the dish.
Veal disappointed, too. Vitello borgo mio, a combination of slices of thin veal and eggplant, both dipped in an egg batter and sauteed in butter and wine, should have been delicious. Yet both the meat and the vegetable tasted strangely identical; both, like the trout, were mushy. The dish has no flash of color to enliven the visual effect.
Grilled boar, on the other hand, is outstanding. The meat is farm-raised and hence has none of the gaminess of wild boar. It is more akin to a tender pork roast, with a subtle but distinct flavor. Served with an excellent rosemary-and-sage sauce, it's perfect for fall and winter.
At a recent lunch, both the meat and the fish were accompanied by a first-class ratatouille, a vegetable stew of onions, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and garlic cooked in olive oil. Delicious. Unfortunately, the same side dish was not served at dinner. La Perla might consider offering diners who have ordered pasta as a first course this excellent vegetable stew in lieu of another helping of spaghetti.
Desserts consist primarily of an assortment of cakes and pastries. At lunch, we tasted a marvelously light and fragrant tiramisu, one of the best I have tried. The "Kiss of Naples" is described as a signature dessert. The one we got was no doubt a forgery, a frozen chocolate cup filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with a nondescript chocolate sauce. Kiss it off. The zabaglione sauce listed on the menu is not a real zabaglione but merely a spoonful of flavored cream. A real disappointment.
Lunch prices are attractively reasonable; at dinner, everything is priced much higher, with some dishes being almost the double the cost of their lunchtime counterparts. Even the Kiss of Naples rises from $4.95 to $7.50 for an identical portion.
La Perla has a great location, at the eastern end of the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge linking the West End with Georgetown. The neighborhood should eagerly embrace an Italian restaurant. With a little less pretension and a bit more bistro informality, La Perla could be the pearl in the oyster.

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