I admit that I visit restaurants more often than most people. Between research for my apps, and content for my blog, I get around a lot. But the restaurants I go to, more often than not, are not on the fancy, Michelin-starred side of things. There are a few reasons for this. One of the main ones is that I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) that most of my readers (that would be you) are more interested in hearing about a hidden trattoria where they can escape the tourist hoards in Rome/Venice/Florence rather than my own report on a famous restaurant that they already know is good.
Another reason I don’t frequent the truly great places? They are expensive. And these days, as food blogger, I’m usually paying my own way. Back in the day, when I was writing more often for magazines like Town & Country and Bon Appetit there were budgets for writers to head to these kinds of places. Things have changed.
So while I’m intensely curious about the starred restaurants , it’s a rare occasion that I actually get to eat there. I take advantage of events like Taste of Rome to sample some of the dishes from these chefs, but other than that, I usually just read about them.
Lately, though, I’ve had the great good luck to be invited to some of these top restaurants. This past summer I dined at Zass, the restaurant in Hotel il San Pietro in Positano. And this fall I was invited to Imago at the Hassler. And last week, I found myself at what many consider to be one of the best, if not the best, restaurant in Italy: La Pergola.
La Pergola is the domain of Heinz Beck, German born, but in Italy for so long now that he considers himself almost Roman. (well, that may be stretching it). This is the only three starred restaurant in Rome, and is one of only 8 in all of Italy.
He is considered to be, without any exaggeration on my part, one of the best chefs in Italy and is certainly the most famous.
How did I arrive here? I was invited. Like many of the top restaurants in Rome, La Pergola is located in a hotel. Formerly the Cavallieri Hilton, the hotel was recently bought by the chain Waldorf Astoria. As part of a brand promotion, they are currently pushing the idea of creating a new signature dish. (FYI the Waldorf Astoria was the birthplace of Eggs Benedict, Red Velvet Cake the Waldorf Salad and Thousand Island Dressing). The James Beard Foundation is pairing up and coming young chefs with the Waldorf Asoria own in-house chefs, like Beck, to see if they can create another iconic dish.
While I wasn’t so interested in the whole signature dish thing (I don’t think you can create these kinds of things, they just happen) I did say yes right away to dinner.
Which leads me to the whole discussion of how to handle meals I don’t pay for.
While I would have liked to have enjoyed a meal at La Pergola (or Imago, or Zass) on my own dime, I just don’t have enough dimes to cover this. Also, when I dine at restaurants like this, I’m not really providing a review. This is more of a report on the entire experience, which I hope I will be able to be perfectly honest about, regardless of who is paying the bill.
And really, when you get up to this level, and the restaurant is starred and has been reviewed by some of the most critical restaurant reviewers around, what more can I add to the discussion?
That said, I do think it’s important that I have these experiences, so that I can be informed while advising clients and readers on their choices while in Rome.
Does this make sense? I hope so, and I’d love to hear what you think.
So, on to our meal.
Sophie and I arrived an hour early, so that we had a chance to chat with Chef Beck. It was only minutes before service, so while we chatted young men arrived from the kitchen with samples of sauces for him to taste. What did we chat about? Mostly health, diet and nutrition. While you might expect a chef of this level to speak eloquently about hard to find ingredients and cutting edge techniques, Heinz was more interested in the effects of carbohydrates and cholesterol and the consequences of childhood diabetes. Since these are all things that fascinate me, the precious hour we had was up way too fast before Heinz had to go oversee the kitchen and Sophie and I were whisked off to our table.
To receive three Michelin stars it’s not just all about the food. It’s about the setting, the service and everything else. This is the kind of place that offers a water menu, an olive oil menu, a choice of different salts (I counted six) and as many waiters as there were guests.
At the chef’s suggestion, Sophie and had (with a few changes) the 9 course tasting menu.
- La Ricciola marinata con neve di melagrana (Marinated fish with pomegranate snow)
- Carpaccio di capesante su amaranto al mais nero con olio allo zenzero(Carpaccio of scallops on an amaranth grain and black corn with ginger oil)
- Giardino d’acqua….( Water Garden)
- Mazzancolle in tempura su crema di frittura di calamari(Tempura of Crayfish with a fried calamari cream)
- Merluzzo cotto in olio d’oliva profumato all’Agio su fagioli cannellini con neve di baccala(Cod cooked in garlic flavored olive oil on cannellini beans with salt cod snow)
- Fagottelli ‘la pergola’
- Filetto di capriolo su campo autunnale (Fillet of venison on an autumn field)
- Sfera ghiacciata ai frutti rossi su crema al te con lamponi cristollizzati
As I said, this is not a review, so I’m not going to describe each dish in detail. Here follow my photos (which don’t quite do it justice due to the low lights). Enough to say that each and every bite was perfect? The combinations of texture and taste, of temperature and color, of shape and design all worked to make each mouthful an exillerating experience. What stuck us most was how intensely each ingredient tasted of itself. I know this sounds simplified, but it’s a rare and difficult thing to achieve.
The service was of course beyond perfect.
Every one of the three Michelin stars were deserved.
The meal ended with a miniature garden of fresh herbs, wheeled to us on a cart. A few snips and we had our freshly brewed tisane (herbal tea), while munching on the various peti fours hidden in the drawers of the silver plated server.
So who dines at a restaurant like this? The evening we were there, there were a few obvious groups of Italian business men, dining on expense accounts. But there were also a few tables of (wealthy) Italians who had obviously been coming here for years. The majority of diners were tourists from all over the world.
A word about the dining room. The Cavalieri is a huge hotel perched on top of Monte Mario and enjoys an extraordinary view out over Rome. The building was constructed in the 1960’s is decorated in what I would describe as “Traditional Old World” style. La Pergola is perched up on the roof, and floor to ceiling windows look out onto the sparkling lights of Rome and is as dramatic as it sounds. But the dining room itself? A bit dowdy for my tastes. Wall to wall carpeting with a circa 1978 design just made me very aware that I was in a hotel. And the terrace which wraps around the dining room (which I’m sure is lovely in the summer) just looked forlorn and abandoned. I know the food is the thing here, but there seemed to be such a disconnect between setting and plate, that it was worth noting. (And I’m not going to go into the Christmas decorations which included stuffed teddy bears in the center of each table.)
One of the main questions I get from readers about this restaurant is should they make the effort to go here while they are in Rome. I mentioned this to Chef Beck, and I think he was a bit surprised that I would have the nerve to ask him this. His response? That La Pergola isn’t just another restaurant in Rome. It’s pretty much a destination in and of itself. I agree.
Open for dinner only, Tuesday-Saturday.
Closed Jan 4-Feb.2; August 9-24.
Jacket required for men.
The 9 course Gourmet Tasting Menu is 220 Euros.