In the modern world, finding Perillo's Pizzeria tucked into an urban side-street in Indy or Bloomington makes a modicum of sense, but finding a thriving Italian restaurant, with all the earmarks of a legendary big-city mom-and-pop, in a place like North Salem is in many ways a miracle. But maybe that's part of the charm.
North Salem is the kind of hyper-small town dotting the perimeter of every county in the Hoosier state. In a time when roads in the modern sense were non-existent - and railways were the only viable method of long distance travel - these small hamlets provided everything locals needed: somewhere to buy goods, somewhere to worship, somewhere to exchange hellos. Decades after cheap gas, affordable cars, miles of asphalt, and public school consolidation these outlying communities began their stubborn withdrawal into obscurity. Today, the once majestic two and three-story brick structures delineating avenues where a bustling population lived those active lives now stand as husks, the red and brown brick facades rendered by wind, sun, humidity, and driving snow to dull, bleached remnants of their former glory.
An Inviting Vibe On an unseasonably warm January evening, my fiance, Wendi, and I stand outside Perillo's Pizzeria in an adjacent patio awash by the soft illumination of the fully lit Christmas tree not quite ready to surrender its time and blanketing the setting with a mood best described as "serene." Flooding the patio, Cat Stevens' smooth falsetto croons "Father and Son." Around us, another five or six groups thumb through their phones, occasionally turning upward. Some hyper-actively inspect the doorway to the restaurant, others peacefully bask the glow of the tree and wisps of warm winter air.
Slowly, intermittently, we hear the calling of names from Perillo's small threshold. With each proclamation we expectantly crane our necks, turning our eyes to the doorway. When a name other than ours rings out, we enviously take in the sight of the next happy family bobbing to the steps, disappearing around the doorway's edge. When our turn comes, all that we've been waiting for greets us.
A Quaint and Intimate Setting Wendi and I are seated at a small table for two, tucked along the side wall. Looking forward, I can see the front entrance no more than ten feet away, and only a yard behind me the outdoor breeze wisps over my shoulder from the aforementioned side door facing the patio. The entire dining area encompasses a space no bigger than my late grandparents' modest living room. Seated around us, some 30-50 patrons in other small tables along the wall - in large family arrangements in the middle, and cozy bench seats at the far end. Dimly lit casting a series of browns and off-whites, the setting evokes that urban feel Wendi and I remember in places ranging from the Circle City to our trip to New Orleans. Among the shadows I can hardly make out Wendi's features, but the ambiance it creates is a welcome accouterments, an intimate change from the jarring glare common to other venues.
Excellent Cuisine Wendi orders the Penne Romana while I stare down at a bowl of traditional spaghetti and meatballs. The food is delicious. The pasta rolls easily around my fork, and the sauce lights up on my tongue as it crosses my palate, drawing in each strand like the 8-year-old I've never stopped being. As good as the entrees are it's the garlic cheese rolls, tucked into the side of the bowl which make the trip worth the mileage and the wait. After the first bite, I have to fight the urge to inhale the entire roll, consciously working to save a lump so I can clean up the vestiges of spaghetti sliding around at the bottom of my bowl. As I work through the meal, I initially hold off on my first of some four or five meatballs. I know that, just like the rolls, if I sink my teeth into the first one I'm going to work through the rest of them in lightening fashion. My patience is rewarded, however, as I enjoy my last combination of pasta and meat in a savory mouthful which I let rest on the tongue before chasing it with the final bite of bread.
Worth A Return Trip On the night we dined in, Perillo's housed what looked to be a mostly local set who had traded in the slim pants and squared-off Steve Maddens for a tennis shoes and hooded Colts sweatshirts. Perhaps for this reason (Perillo's wise move to cater to its nearby supporters) the restaurant smartly balances its homage to the Old World with a sort of rustic, small town sensibility. Whatever their motives, the entire package works. Yes, the drive entails a few winding curves on tight two-lane roads. Yes, the wait may sometimes take as long as the drive from the city to get there. And although I can't speak for the family experience (they all looked they were having a grand time from my vantage point), from the intimate dining for two perspective, Perillo's proved a great place to sit down with a beautiful woman, enjoy a delicious meal, and savor in the joy of living in west central Indiana.