When you think about good Italian food, words that come to mind might include quality, simplicity, passion and tradition. Unfortunately, none of those are words that could be used to describe the cooking at La Perla del Gargano Trattoria, a new Italian restaurant on Slavíkova close to Jiřího z Poděbrad square.
From the outside, at least, La Perla etc. looked like a vast improvement on Pizzeria Buongiorno, the former inhabitant of this space. The once dim and smoky interior now looks bright, clean and much more inviting. The new chefs are Italian and, unlike its predecessor, this restaurant doesn’t cater primarily for the late-night crowd.
The menu isn’t yet posted on their website, and when I stopped by for a look, it wasn’t up outside the restaurant either. There was still an air conditioning unit sitting right over the entrance, constantly dripping. It didn’t look entirely promising. But could the food at this smartened-up Italian make it a new neighbourhood favourite?
I should’ve known the answer to that question as soon as we walked into the abandoned dining room. On a Friday night visit, it was completely silent except for the faint sound of the TV the bored waitress was watching. She didn’t bother getting up to greet us so we wandered past into the back room, which looked slightly more welcoming than the stark, brightly-lit area up front.
Music was hastily switched on – a loud blast of Danza Kuduro – and our waitress soon arrived with the menu; a long tome written entirely in Italian, with a small number of items arbitrarily deemed worthy of having explanations written underneath in Czech.
One corner of the room was stacked with jars and packets of Italian food for sale. Along with the new décor and relatively high menu prices, this seemed to suggest that the place wanted to be taken somewhat seriously.
A nearby food hatch meant we were separated from the kitchen only by a metallic blind, but if we hoped to be treated to the sounds and aromas of fresh food sizzling away we were in for a disappointment. As we waited for our food, during the long, slightly awkward silences between unnerving bursts of dance music, we heard little else coming from there but the constant ping and whirr of the microwave. We were getting nervous.
The Parmigiana al Forno was a dish of soft, chewy strips of eggplant with mozzarella, which had apparently been baked, in tomato sauce. The heavy mozzarella was just as synthetic and unpleasant as the overly sweet tomato sauce. Together, the whole thing was bland and stodgy, and tasted inexplicably of mushrooms.
Another starter, Zuppa de Verdure, appeared a few minutes later. It was a clear, under-seasoned broth, and in it floated large chunks of potato and mushy broccoli, tiny pieces of carrot and green beans, which had clearly come from the freezer, and a few hard peas. It came sprinkled with parmesan and accompanied by some dense, chewy, slices of white bread, which also seemed to have been recently defrosted.
Our main courses were also brought out one by one, and arrived before we’d got very far with our starters. On the menu, many of the main courses had been a mystery. Our Ukrainian waitress had explained it was only her second day on the job and she found it hard to translate from Italian to English, so we played it safe, sticking with the classics
Sadly, their version of pasta carbonara was an enormous mound of lukewarm spaghetti, with some unappetizing pale yellow liquid seeping out of it. Whilst this carbonara at least wasn’t made with cream, it also lacked the rather integral ingredients of parmesan cheese and black pepper. Instead it tasted strangely sweet. A few pieces of rubbery ham sat at the side. The only positive thing I could find to say about this dish was that the pasta was at least cooked al dente.
The pizza diavola, meanwhile, had very little spice to speak of, while the dough was tough, chewy and far from fresh. The synthetic mozzarella and tomato sauce combination made another appearance, along with a thankfully small amount of cheap sausage which had neither the taste nor texture of salami.
Though the portions were big, the ingredients were cheap and artificial, the food was thrown together and it was very poor value for money. The best thing we had at La Perla was a Greek-style mixed salad, which was simply average, but at least fresh.
The list of wines by the glass was unusually long. When I asked for a glass of the Montepulciano D’Abruzzo the waitress looked worried, and asked another member of staff, in Czech, whether they had “any red wine”.
The mystery red soon appeared, ice cold and smelling as if it had been poured from a tap or box – unforgivable at 99 kč a glass. We also asked for a glass of chardonnay, but whatever it was we received tasted acidic. The Budvar beer was a far better option, though pricey at 42kč a half liter.
During our visit the only other customers were a table of two who sat down for pizza. The pizzas are made in a separate area in front of the diners, which could have been a nice touch but wasn’t. To say the pizza chef looked unenthused by his job would be an understatement. The sight of him slowly and unhappily placing tinned mushrooms onto the other table’s pizza, before reluctantly shoving it into the oven, was the exact opposite of anything you’d ever hope to see in an authentic Italian restaurant.
Shortly after we ordered dessert of pancakes and ice cream, the microwave again whirred into action. The pale, soggy pancakes tasted of nothing, and came served with what tasted like supermarket value brand chocolate ice cream. The chef had made an effort with the presentation, but his time would have been better spent cooking some real pancakes. The coffee they served had a strange aftertaste and came with an expired chocolate truffle.
There was no mention anywhere of the fact that they didn’t take credit cards. This, we were told, is because the place only opened about a month ago. This was also the given explanation for their unfinished website. While they may well be working on these things, it’s not likely that the kitchen later intends to start using fresh ingredients, or that they’ll put some proper wine behind the bar once they get going.
This wasn’t a case of a restaurant having a bad night or being new and not yet up to speed – La Perla simply has no interest in food, and its empty dining room is testimony to that. In a city where people are now increasingly willing to pay for freshness and quality, serving up frozen food at inflated prices is a recipe for disaster.
Overall 1* (out of 5*)
Note: When this was first published, a few people asked if I was exaggerating or being gratuitously mean for some reason. No, unfortunately for me, every single word of this is true.