625 Camberwell Road
|Opening hours||Dinner Tues-Sat (bar opens at 3pm; pizzas available from 5:30pm)|
|Functions||Accepts Bookings, Bar, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains voltage $20-$40)|
|payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9654 6526|
What does the perfect neighborhood restaurant look like? There is no perfect answer. Different suburbs demand different things depending on residents and topography, and tastes within each area vary widely: where some may need nothing more than a sprawling beer garden, others may prefer something special enough for a decent Friday night.
But as I sat at one of the seven indoor tables at La Perla, the new restaurant and wine bar on Camberwell’s southern border, I decided this place comes pretty close to that elusive ideal.
Opened in December by former Denton Wine Bar chef Kieran Hoop and business partners Stefan Moon and David Cooper, La Perla was originally a simple wine and cocktail bar with cold cuts and cheese boards alongside a handful of snacks.
The classic vintage display area is decorated in pleasant cream tones with light floors, rattan chairs and wooden tables, and with bright touches of color mainly provided by the jewel-toned liquor bottles that line the rear bar.
That bar is a particularly nice place to sit in the afternoon and sip one of Hoop’s well-balanced cocktails. Go for the Pineapple Paradise for $21 if you want something light and fruity, while the Toronto, also $21, is a variation of the Manhattan, made with Fernet-Branca instead of vermouth and perfect if you’re looking for something with more weight.
There’s a short but clever wine list focused on Italian varietals, all chosen to pair with the kind of meat-and-cheese snacks the venue excels at.
In February, a wood-fired oven was installed and the menu expanded to include five pizzas, plus a few vegetable side dishes cooked in that oven, most temptingly a half cup of broccoli ($14) that’s still spicy in the center but scorched on its edges. . Smothered in ricotta and with a light lemon dressing, it’s the epitome of clever simplicity.
The pizzas are on the border between tradition and innovation: nothing is too crazy, but some classic flavor combinations have been borrowed with great success from non-pizza dishes. Thinly sliced wagyu bresaola, bitter greens, and shredded sharp cheese, for example, are more commonly found as an appetizer salad, but on top of the crispy crust at La Perla, it works just as well as a pizza ($25).
That crust is the real star of the show. Both puffy and light, with just the right amount of break-to-stretch ratio, it provides a base for pizzas that aren’t quite as hefty as many in the city: they’re snackable, shareable, and fun.
Perhaps most enjoyable is the pumpkin pizza ($23), which combines a smooth pumpkin puree with pine nuts, fried sage, and stracciatella. The creaminess of the cheese and pumpkin work beautifully together, while the pine nuts and sage provide a textural contrast and a hint of nutty herbal flavors that help balance the sweetness.
If I have one complaint, it’s that there are a lot of creamy cheeses and breadcrumbs on this menu (I can’t believe I’m actually complaining about creamy cheese, but listen to me). To get a full meal, order a caprese salad ($16) made recently with beautiful, late-season heirloom tomatoes, the bottom of the plate smeared with stracciatella, then a pizza with more creamy cheese, then a broccoli side piled with ricotta. Or maybe you want to start with a cheese board? You see where I’m going: a little more diversity in the menu would help make this a place to return to again and again.
Those hopes may soon be answered as the menu will slowly expand to include some non-pizza mains, some pastas, and maybe a special roast here and there. There will also be a greater emphasis on music (the restaurant’s marketing refers to it as a wine, pizza and music bar), with DJ sets on weekends from mid-May.
It’s smart of these new entrepreneurs to take it easy, expand as they find out what the neighborhood wants and needs, to make sure they have the basics in place before they shoot for the stars.
If I lived in the area, this place would quickly become my local: for those drinks, that intimate neighborly feel, and for those crispy pizza pies.
Appearance: Simple and clear and intimate; a modern take on the classic Italian neighborhood connection
Appetizer dish: Pumpkin Pizza ($23)
Drinks: Well-crafted cocktails and an Italy-focused wine list
Cost: About $40 per person for pizza and snacks, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in Good weekend magazine