It was with some definite excitement that I approached our highlight dinner at La Pergola. Highly acclaimed and universally loved, La Pergola is frequently heralded as Rome's best restaurant. Michelin considers it the only one in town worthy of 3 stars - amazing for what one would think should be a major European eating capital.
Strange as it may sound, Rome's most famous restaurant features a non-native chef. German-born Heinz Beck has been running the ship there since 1994. Despite that, Beck is well recognized for his contributions to Italian cuisine.
Nested atop Monte Mario, Rome's highest hill, La Pergola is on the 9th floor of the Roma Cavalieri hotel, about 15 minutes northwest from the city center. The setting certainly matches the restaurant's lofty reputation. Professional, bow-tied waiters roam the luxuriously decorated dining room. Classical art lines the walls, while panoramic glass windows overlook incredible views of Rome and the Vatican.
The vibe is pure old world power. One could imagine colluding billionnaire soccer club owners negotiating their fixture results over a pre-season dinner in a place like this. Nothing so sinister on the night we were there, though. We were seated next to a large table comprised of what seemed to be 3 generations of family casually celebrating multiple birthdays. It was interesting to see kids from around 7 to 15 behaving and enjoying steaks at a Michelin 3*. Although, based on the fancy gifts being distributed, it's entirely possible that they were heirs to a soccer team...
The menu options are fairly straightforward. They offer a 6-course tasting for €175, a 9-course tasting for €198, or an a la carte menu where courses mostly cost €40-€60 each (though some involving truffles went up to €95, quickly outpacing the cost of the tastings). There is plenty of opportunity for excess - in addition to a vast wine list, they also have a water list that tops out at €200 for a bottle of Filico, some kind of premium Japanese water from the sake-brewing mountains of Kobe. I think it comes in a fancy bottle. We declined on the uberwater and stuck with some Acqua Panna, but we did opt for the 9-course tasting.
The amuse was this barely-cooked tuna served with a tonatto-like sauce. The two versions of tuna each focused on different aspects of the fish, combining the focused flavor of the sauce with the delicate texture of the meat.
This superb foie gras preparation was next. Rich and velvety, the liver was well balanced by the refreshing gelatin sandwiched in the middle.
Quite literally painted onto the bowl, the parmigiano in this demonstrated a true distillation of the cheese's flavor. Mixed with the creamy quail egg, the bits of quinoa and greens became a nice vehicle for the savoriness of the entire dish. A beautiful course to look at, and equally great to eat.
The only pasta dish of the meal, these stuffed "cockscombs" (named after the fleshy red crest of roosters) were impossibly light with a crisp, refreshing center. The seafood sauce, powered mostly by the tiniest yet tastiest clams, was briny and delicious.
Quite simply, these specimens were pristine in quality and perfectly cooked. The ingredient was clearly the highlight here, and Beck was sure to keep the focus on the gorgeous scampi, adding just subtle flavorings to brighten the dish.
When originally researching La Pergola, I had come across this 2005 review from Gastroville, in which Vedat artfully describes the exceptionality of wild sea bass. I'd forgotten about it leading up to my trip, but when I took a bite of this that paragraph immediately came back to mind. It's not rare to find branzino done simple with some olive oil, but this rendition was the peak of that simple kind of preparation. A fantastic piece of fish.
At this point, it was also becoming clear how much Beck pays attention to color on the plate. On the restaurant's website, Beck is quoted as wanting "to transmit emotions through a balance of aromas, flavours and colours." I sadly didn't quite capture the brightness of the vegetables on this plate, but it was striking.
A good dish with subtle flavors, though not as memorable for me as the others. The variety of textures, from the smooth rabbit to the crisp beets and flaky artichokes, was nice.
An absolutely stunning lamb course to wrap up the savory dishes. I think you could say this was a fancified version of classic meatballs with marinara, but using perfectly-done leg of lamb with an electric, explosive, party-in-your-mouth tomato sauce. This was easily one of the most delicious meats I ate on the entire month-long trip.
I have no idea where I put my notes on the cheeses, so sadly I don't have the names. We asked for a good variety, and most of the popular Italian cheese categories were well represented - a soft cow's cheese, a couple of strong hard cheeses, a nice Taleggio, and a blue. The parmigiano was excellent, and we got to sample some of the wonderful balsamic vinegar they had on hand (I want to say it was 50-year, but I can't remember for certain).
Our palate cleanser was this tart sorbet-juice combination. Very pure flavors and extremely refreshing.
La Pergola follows with a plethora of little dessert portions. I love eating this way, but they sure are hard to photograph. Each dessert was nice and light, and not overly sweet.
More desserts - each carefully thought out with a nice balance of fruit flavors and chocolates, and on the whole presenting a wonderful variety of textures and forms.
Finally, we were presented with this miniature treasure box of drawers filled with cookies and treats. It was tough, but I managed to try one of each kind. As you would expect, the pastries are all top-class.
Service was superb. It was a little less personal than Pinchiorri, but absolutely smooth and professional throughout. The entire operation really evoked the synchronized, seemingly-effortless teamwork needed for an establishment at this level. The folks here know what they're doing. It's a true Michelin 3*, no doubt in my mind. I think that because Italian food as a whole can excel so beautifully in much more casual circumstances, it can be easy to overlook the fancier side of Italian cuisine. I'm guilty of it, especially when comparing to French fine dining or modern Spanish cooking. Heinz Beck proves that he can easily hang with the big boys, and his reputation is well deserved.
Plus, there's no setting grander than the La Pergola's decked out dining room... after dinner, you can step outside to the patio and see St. Peter's Basilica gleaming in the distance.