625 Camberwell Rd Camberwell, VIC 3124
|Opening hours||Dinner Tue-Sat (bar opens at 3pm; pizzas available from 5.30pm)|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9654 6526|
What does the perfect neighbourhood restaurant look like? There is no perfect answer. Different suburbs demand different things, depending on residents and topography, and tastes within every area vary widely: where some might need nothing more than a sprawling beer garden, others might prefer something fancy enough for a decent Friday date night.
But as I sat at one of the seven indoor tables at La Perla, the newish restaurant and wine bar on the southern border of Camberwell, I decided that 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 offering charcuterie and cheese plates alongside a handful of snacks.
The classic vintage storefront space has been fitted out in pleasing cream tones with light floors, rattan chairs and wood tables, and with bright pops of colour provided mainly by the jewel-toned booze bottles that line the back bar.
That bar is an exceptionally nice place to sit in the afternoon and sip on one of Hoop's well-balanced cocktails. Go for the Pineapple Paradise at $21 if you want something light and fruity, while the Toronto, also $21, is a variation on the Manhattan, made with Fernet-Branca instead of vermouth and perfect if you're looking for something with more heft.
There's a short but savvy wine list focused on Italian varietals, all chosen to pair with the kind of meat-and-cheese snacking at which the venue excels.
In February, a wood-fired oven was installed and the menu broadened to include five pizzas, plus a few vegetable side dishes cooked in that oven, most alluringly a half-head hunk of broccoli ($14) that's still snappy in the centre but singed at its edges. Smothered in ricotta and with a light lemon dressing, it's the height of clever simplicity.
The pizzas straddle the line between tradition and innovation: nothing is too out-there, but some classic flavour combinations have been borrowed from non-pizza dishes to great effect. For instance, thinly sliced wagyu bresaola, bitter greens and shaved sharp cheese might be more commonly found as an entree salad, but atop the crackly 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 the exact right amount of shatter-to-stretch ratio, it provides a base for pizzas that aren't as hefty as many in town: they're snackable, sharable, and fun.
Perhaps most fun is the pumpkin pizza ($23), which combines a smooth pumpkin puree with pine nuts, fried sage and stracciatella. The creaminess of the cheese and the pumpkin work beautifully together, while the pine nuts and sage provide textural contrast and pops of nutty herbal flavours that help to balance out the sweetness.
If I have one complaint it's that there are a lot of creamy cheeses and bready breads on this menu (I cannot believe I'm actually complaining about creamy cheese, but hear me out). To get a full meal, you might order a caprese salad ($16), made recently with gorgeous, late-season heirloom tomatoes, the base of the plate smeared with stracciatella, then a pizza with more creamy cheese, then a broccoli side piled with ricotta. Or perhaps you'd like to start with a cheese plate? You see where I'm going: some 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 is set to slowly expand to include some non-pizza mains, some pastas and perhaps a roast meat special here and there. There will also be more emphasis on music (the restaurant's marketing refers to it as a wine, pizza and music bar), with DJ sets on weekends planned to start in mid-May.
It's smart of these new business owners to take things slowly, to expand as they figure out what the neighbourhood wants and needs, to make sure they have the basics down before they shoot for the stars.
If I lived nearby, this place would quickly become my local: for those drinks, that intimate neighbourly feel, and for those crackly pizza pies.
Vibe: Simple and bright and intimate; a modern take on the classic Italian neighbourhood joint
Go-to dish: Pumpkin pizza ($23)
Drinks: Well-made cocktails and an Italian-focused wine list
Cost: About $40 a head for pizza and snacks, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine