The strange thing about people in Rome (yes, ‘when in Rome’, that old chestnut) is that they don’t really tend to frequent the sort of gilt-edged Michelin-starred establishments that are so popular in most other major European cities. Sure, there are a few places that offer serious gastronomy – Il Pagliaccio springs to mind, with its well-earned two Michelin stars – but by and large, the sort of hearty, bustling trattorias that are packed every night eschew fripperies and indulgence for more honest and traditional fare.
Some might find this rather endearing. Others, however, might find themselves yearning for a properly high-end experience, dripping with opulence and where the sort of world-class dining that a world-class city deserves is served in spades. Enter the Rome Cavalieri’s flagship restaurant La Pergola, under the more than capable charge of superchef Heinz Beck. Many in London will have heard of him in connection with his Michelin-starred restaurant at the Lanesborough, Apsley’s, which is very good indeed. What it isn’t is a patch on La Pergola, which, as the only three Michelin-starred restaurant in Rome (and one of a mere eight in all of Italy – still, that’s four more than Britain) has a substantial reputation to live up to.
The Holy Roman Empress and I headed there one evening in late November, partly to celebrate my birthday – a significant one, since you ask – and partly because we’d heard that it was something quite magnificent. The Cavalieri is situated a little distance out of the centre of Rome, perched (unsurprisingly) on a hill. La Pergola is based on the top of the building, offering magnificent views over the city, from St Peter’s to the Altare della Patria. As you’d expect in somewhere of this calibre, the welcome is warm, effusive and professional. A window table is offered, two glasses of sparkling Italian wine thrust upon us, of top-class vintage Champagne calibre, and a selection of bread dangled in front of our eyes. Frankly you can’t go wrong with focaccia, and we didn’t, especially when it comes with a selection of different salts from countries including Japan and Norway. The one we found most beguiling was the volcanic black salt from Hawaii, which offered a taste somewhere between salt and pepper. The Holy Roman Empress commented, ‘This is the sort of place that has a water sommelier, isn’t it?’ and sure enough, someone loomed into view offering us an extraordinary range of types of water. We grinned wildly, and used the time-honoured ‘Why don’t you choose for us?’ excuse. Whatever was chosen was perfectly tasteless, in the best possible way.
There is an a la carte menu, but frankly you’d be a fool if you didn’t have the tasting menu, which is offered in two permutations, either a nine-course blow out or six courses thereof. The great thing about Heinz Beck’s cooking is that it’s surprisingly light – perhaps this is unsurprising, given that, between his commitments to his restaurants and his TV programmes, he lectures in nutrition. Most of the courses are subtle, more likely to be fish or vegetable-based than carnivorous, and very, very delicious indeed. Individual highlights included black cod in a fiery, peppery minestrone soup, venison in a pistachio crust and, possibly best of all, Chef Beck’s signature dish, ‘Fagotelli La Pergola’. Like Heston Blumenthal’s meat fruit, this is an iconic dish – a variant of it also appears at Apsley’s – and it seems almost a shame to spoil it by describing it too closely. I’ll say this much: think carbonara, but then think liquid, and you’ve more or less got it.
A decent – indeed, very decent – selection of wines kept popping up throughout the meal, which is unsurprising given that the restaurant boasts a 60,000-strong wine cellar. I often struggle to work out how enormous a cellar that must be; granted, a bottle itself doesn’t occupy a particularly large amount of space, but 60,000 of them must represent an invasion of sorts. It’s Italian-focused, and perhaps surprisingly for somewhere of this level, offers a lot at fairly accessible prices around the 40-50 Euro mark. A particularly good Sauvignon saw us through the first few courses, and then a rather fine Pinot Nero took over from there. Eventually, we got to dessert, and then two distinct helpings of petit fours, one in a rather amusing little jewel box in which each drawer opened to reveal some new delicacy or other. The chocolates that arrived just seemed overkill, but a request to take them off and consume them at a later date was happily acceded to.
The entire meal lasted around four hours, a fairly considerable time to be sitting in one place guzzling and quaffing, but it’s really about as excellent a dining experience as I’ve had all year. Even the Holy Roman Empress, a woman who is more interested in cosy trattorias than tasting menus, pronounced it something quite exceptional. And that, frankly, is the highest praise I can think of.
La Pergola, Rome Cavalieri, Via Alberto Cadlolo 101, 00136 Rome, Italy. Tel: 39 06 3509 1. Website.