It's got a tall, vaulted ceiling, Leccese stone walls and lots of room. It's relaxed, as trattorias(1) normally are, but occasionally quite bustling. Every kind of customer comes here - families big and small, groups of colleagues, romantic couples, businessmen, locals and foreigners, and solitary people lunching. Whether they're celebrating or just having a casual meal, they all know they can always enjoy unpretentious, fresh, satisfying typical Pugliese home style cooking - at a very fair price. Although it's just a five minute walk from the historic center of Lecce, it's often far less thronged; but that has absolutely nothing to do with the fare. And often on evenings it does get packed with knowledgeable locals, so you'd best reserve your table.
The vegetable antipasti are some of the best in the city. That's saying a lot here in Puglia - the region of Italy known for its sunshine, sea, wind and outstanding greens. Typically you get beet tops, cabbage, rape(2) , chicory boiled and/or sautéed with tomatoes, green, red, and yellow peppers, fennel, aubergines grilled or sautéed, and, depending on the season maybe artichokes, asparagus, green beans, beets, mushrooms, or even papparine(3). Sometimes there's a bit of frittata(4) on the plate, or some caprese(5), or a square of potato focaccia made with tomato, onion and olives - one of the region's signature dishes. What you get, of course, always changes with the seasons, but they are all so good, I've often seen my dining companions fill up on just these. (OK, it's usually women - watching their figures but still wanting to be delighted - who do this.) I always get some mussels as well, completely sating my appetite with one of the healthiest and tastiest Mediterranean diets you can imagine.
Speaking of mussels, head cook Sergio just has a way with them, as Don Giovanni had a way with women. You can order them with spaghetti, in a pepata(6) with white wine, tomatoes, garlic and parsley, or gratinéed with a touch of garlic, parsley, olive oil, breadcrumbs, and.... a secret ingredient! In the blazing summer months, he can serve them shelled at room temperature topped with just olive oil, parsley, and a lemon wedge. And, if you're lucky (or order ahead for a minimum number of people), you might get to savor la taeddhra, one of the most brilliant dishes in all of Puglia. It's basically mussels, potatoes, and zucchine, topped with breadcrumbs and baked in a deep pan or casserole. It may sound simple, but I've tried it in many places around town and I can assure you Sergio's is top notch. It has exactly the right touch - the potatoes are smooth textured, full of flavour from the mussels' juice, and have just the right sea saltiness from the shells. This is by far my favorite way to eat mussels.
And don't hesitate to try his other pastas, like orecchiette with cherry tomatoes and little cubes of pancetta, always perfectly seasoned and topped with some of the best olive oil on the Salentine peninsula.
Meanwhile pizzaiolo(7) Francesco turns out one perfect pizza after another from his wood-fired oven - more Roman style (thin, crisper crust) than Neopolitan, and available in dozens of variations - from classic Margherita to Neopolitan (anchovies, olives and capers) to Pugliese with rape and sausage. They look big, but they're light and tasty. Even the most delicate, slim waisted diet conscious ragazze(8) finish every bite.
Both of these guys are just naturally kind and friendly - the first time you eat here, you'll feel so at home you just may decide to move to Lecce. In fact I did. (OK it was a little more complicated) But I haven't regretted it after seven years, and La Perla is one of the reasons. At least twice a month I get that craving for mussels and vegetables, impossible to avoid; and I know where I can go and always get a great meal for a fair price.
Sometimes I feel like I'm getting away with robbery.
Pizzeria La Perla - via Giovanni Antonio Orsini del Balzo, 15, Lecce, 73100
Telephone - 0832 246380
No credit cards. Wood fired pizza available at lunch and dinner
- An informal, often family-run restaurant
- Pronounced “RAH-pay” - turnip greens (turnip tops in the UK) a very common and beloved green vegetable in Puglia, slightly bitter/acidic in flavor, and used widely in pasta and as a side dish.
- Another local leafy green vegetable, well-liked in Puglia and especially Salento
- An omelette, usually a bit deeper and cooked firmer than the French style
- A simple “salad” made of very fresh mozzarella slices, fresh tomato, basil or arugula and olive oil
- A soup/light stew usually made with mussels.
- A pizza-maker. In Italy, a serious occupation, involving special training and well-defined procedures, ingredients and special attention to proper management of the wood fired oven.
- Singular ragazza – a young woman, meaning between 12 and 60 years of age.