Perbacco opened five years ago, to little acclaim, as a dependable if forgettable trattorria serving a greatest-hits menu of starchy pan-Italian. Then, about five months ago, a new chef, 26-year-old Modena native Simone Bonelli, remade the restaurant as an avant-garde, price-conscious, neo-Italian destination, and the crowds have followed.
Emblematic of this new approach is a parmesan crème brulée ($8) graced with a thick skin of singed sugar and a glazing of balsamic reduction. A take on classic sformato, but silkier, it erupts with parmesan flavor, pulling off the salty-sweet combo beloved by many (think kids who dip fries into milkshakes). Not every dish at Perbacco succeeds as fully as the brulée, or the tomato gelatin studded with buffalo milk mozzerella, but it’s fun watching Chef Bonelli try, even with the relatively staid spinach pie ($7), which, while a bit dry, is a health-conscious plate of addictively crunchy triangles.
The space is more classic East Village than the cuisine: noisy, decorated with dark wood and wine bottles, with most diners seated at a communal table. The clientele skews older than the usual spots in the neighborhood, but that’s probably due to a recent write-up in the Times. I almost couldn’t finish an innovative tasting plate of bruschetta ($9, topped variously with goat cheese, walnut and honey; seared tuna, fava bean and olive; and sautéed eggplant) after being forced to listen to a lengthy discussion on the merits of various triplet strollers and whether our waiter (a gracious young Italian man) really deserved a tip as generous as 15 percent.
Thankfully, after pushing their pasta around for 20 minutes, our neighbors left us to enjoy our entrées in peace. A potato and black olive gnocchi ($15) was luscious and tender, bathed in a subtle cream sauce of crab and green peas, but will only be enjoyed by true olive lovers, as the flavor almost overpowered the dumplings. A rich, bloody, grilled rib eye steak was given the sweet treatment, paired with grilled pear, stewed shallots and a saccharine but earthy, complex walnut and truffle sauce, instilling new life into a humble hunk of cow.
Perbacco, at this moment, is something special. It’s not the most comfortable restaurant, nor the most welcoming (don’t expect to be able to reach a human being if you call for a reservation), but it’s a happening. So go soon, before Chef Bonelli is lured to greener pastures uptown — where the money will be more appreciative, but certainly not the salivating crowds.