It was a bit like stepping into a church – people were dressed in their finest – men in sharp navy suits and women in towering heels and form-fitting dresses. All were talking in hushed tones and a reverence filled the air. But this wasn’t Sunday Mass – instead it was Rome’s most lauded restaurant and we were worshipping at the altar of culinary genius, Heinz Beck.
The only three-Michelin starred restaurant in the city, La Pergola is found on the top floor of the fêted Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel. It’s been one of Rome’s best-loved hotels since the mid-60s – not least because it is found 20-minutes outside the city with a lofty position on Monte Mario and set amid a rambling country-park estate. While part of the attraction is certainly the welcome respite its position offers guests, away from the heat of the city, it is indisputably La Pergola that is the jewel in the crown here.
While a small army of waiters pirouette around your table, a series of amuse bouche – tiny sorbets, cold soups in thimble-sized vessels, mini jellies – continuously punctuate the meal. There’s even a choice of no less than six different salts to accompany your just-baked bread and butter. This is elevated dining at its peak – and while the rooftops of Rome blaze away in the distance, under the rays of a dying golden sun – you will quietly savour Beck’s masterpieces on a plate. From White Asparagus with Seaweed Pesto and Squid to Cod with Celery Sauce and Curry Crust – most of the menu is light and healthy, and not overly rich like haute cuisine can be. “The ethos is that you don’t regret anything the next day,” says the hotel’s general manager Alessandro Cabella.
Beck’s signature dish – the Fagotelli La Pergola – is the star of the show. His inside-out take on the classic carbonara sees the sauce encased inside his delicate pasta parcels, so it explodes in your mouth. From the weighty 130-page wine list – there are 70,000 bottles in the hotel’s cellar to choose from – to the dining room itself, which is filled with priceless tapestries and art from the hotel’s renowned collection, La Pergola is an awe-inducing place.
Causing a stir amid the hushed veneration is Beck himself, who makes a buzzy appearance at the end of each service. He reveals he has plans for a revamp of the dining room to better reflect his inventive approach to cooking. “We want to preserve our heritage but also keep a younger crowd interested,” he says on the new direction. “So we’ve asked a number of leading designers for their thoughts on how such a dining room should look.” There are also rumours that he will soon be heading up a second culinary outlet at the hotel.
It’s all part of the hotel’s efforts to retain their position as leading hotel in Rome, but keeping an eye on a savvier, younger type of traveller. Recent enhancements, which have taken place across the resort, include the multi-million-pound revamp of the luxury suites found on the Imperial Floor – all aimed at high-net-worth guests – as well as the Imperial Club Lounge and the flagship Petronius Suite. The latter is a maximalist’s dream – from the oversized, velvet Karl Lagerfeld sofas to the Neoclassical bronzes, from the French gilded bed, based on one at the Palace of Versailles, to the 19th century table inlaid with malachite, the suite is uber-luxe as well as being a showcase for the hotel’s priceless art collection.
Talking of which, a guided tour of the vast collection by one of the resident art historians is a must. It’s as eclectic as it is impressive, and the largest collection you will find outside of a museum. There are original Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s masterpieces in the lobby, Art Nouveau vases by Gallé and even Andy Warhol’s Dollar Signs in one of the suites. Numbering more than 1,000 pieces, from the 16th to the 20th century, you’ll find paintings, priceless Beauvais tapestries, period furniture, statues and artefacts exhibited everywhere.
Décor throughout the hotel is best described as Italian extravagance with lots of flair: bathrooms have violet travertine surfaces, royal blue carpets are decorated with gold plumes, and the heavy drapes have palatial-like frills, swags and tails. Beds, with crisp white linens, are oversized and cocooning. It’s the epitome of traditional luxury.
After a day of exploring the city, the hotel’s Grand Spa Club is just the place to kick back. The cavernous basement – inspired by ancient Roman baths of old – offers three outdoor pools and a glass-domed indoor pool. There’s an amethyst Turkish bath, saunas, whirlpool, fitness facilities and two clay tennis courts (watch out for the tennis pros – during the recent Italian Open which took place in May, both Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic were spotted wandering around). For pure escapism, ten treatment rooms offer Ayurvedic massages and indulgent La Prairie experiences.
Making the most of the grounds, meanwhile, is the 800m fitness trail, which meanders through the landscaped estate and is just the thing for working off the Sunday brunch you will definitely indulge in at the hotel’s second restaurant L’Uliveto. Practically a Roman institution – it’s a must if you are here on a Sunday. You’ll find yourself surrounded by noisy, extended Italian families dressed to the nines. The vast buffet spread is endless and encompasses sushi, Italian antipasti, carved roasted meats, fresh pasta and the most exquisite patisserie you’ll come across outside of Paris. It’s an joyous occasion – just like visiting Rome itself.
For more information on the Rome Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria, visit www.romecavalieri.com.
Citalia (01293 765 066, citalia.com), the leading Italian specialist, has a three-night trip to the five-star Rome Cavalieri, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, on a B&B basis from £793 per person. The package includes return private resort transfers and return flights from London Gatwick with Iberia.