My trip to Italy with my son this past spring was full of wonderful highlights and wonderful food. It was fitting that in the land of opera, we finished it with one of the highest notes of all. Rome’s La Pergola restaurant perched high in the Rome Cavalieri Hilton Hotel overlooking the eternal city is an old-fashioned kind of classic Michelin three star restaurant. It has white tablecloths, , elegant service and sublime cooking. I love today’s more casual fine dining as much as anyone, but on this particular evening, our last in Italy together on this trip, nothing could have been more wonderful for my son and I than this outstanding meal.
Chef Heinz Beck is from Bavaria in Germany. He hails from the same area as the current Pope, something the chef is quite proud of. Beck has taken to Rome and to Italian alta cucina as only an impassioned transplant can. At La Pergola for 18 years as of last spring, Beck has held three Michelin stars for the past seven, almost eight years. He has mastered it completely and it showed on the plate and on the palate.
We were seated at an impeccably dressed table with views directly looking out over the lights of Rome stretched out below us. Fresh orange flowers in bone china vases and lit votive candles brightened up our immediate space, while a glass of fine Spumante enlivened my taste buds.
Though I described La Pergola as a classic Michelin 3 star restaurant, that was not meant to imply that the food was dated, stuffy or boring. Far to the contrary. Beck’s food utilized modern technique without being flamboyant about it. He also utilized traditional techniques with precision and skill. Had he stayed in Germany, he likely would have been a significant influence, along with his contemporary, Harald Wohlfahrt of Schwarzwald Stube, in the development of the Neue Deutsche Schule of German cooking. Indeed, I found these two restaurants to be, outside of the food, quite similar in style, luxury and attentiveness. Even the food was similar in its attention to detail and deliciousness, though the manner of the details were quite different. Both are worthy destinations as there are sufficient differences to justify trips to both for those who can.
There are many restaurants that offer a variety of bottled waters, often at steep prices, but this actually explained the differences in the waters available via a printed menu. The waters were divided by mineral content and body as well as carbonation. We opted for Plose Frizzante, a carbonated mineral water from the Alto Adige in northeastern Italy. While I’m still not sure that the specific water we chose would have made a huge difference in the quality of our meal, this relatively light bodied water served us well.
Our meal at La Pergola was presented in a classic progression right at home for an Italian meal. The bread was exceptional even by top restaurant standards. My first piece was exquisite. Called cruller bread, the bread was flaky and buttery like a superb croissant, but its shape did not in the least resemble a croissant. The other bread options, including the focaccia were equally satisfying.
The breads were served with Puglian olive oil and a selection of colorful salts from around the world.
An amuse of lightly cooked, thinly sliced beef with coffee rub, cappuccino cream and fresh mushrooms reminded me of the first time I had meat mixed with coffee flavors – Arzak’s lamb with a coffee veil from a few year’s ago. Without Arzak’s technical fireworks, the presentation was more restrained. Beck’s style was one of simple elegance, showing bold flavor and a light hand. This was a delightful start.
The first wine poured to pair with the meal was a white from the slopes of Mt. Etna – Cottanera. Made from Carricante grapes, it was full of grapefruit and well balanced acidity. The lovely citrus notes and the lively acid were a good match for the course with which it was paired.
A terrine of silky foie gras was coated with ground almonds and served with puree of smoked apples and gelee of amaretto. This was a well nuanced and delicious preparation of foie gras. Spread on the toasted brioche along with some of the smoked apple, it was the very definition of an elegant dish. The acidity of the Cottanera proved a fine foil for the richness of the foie and the sweetness of its accompaniments, while the almond gave a nice crunch and a hint of bitterness.
With eighteen or so years at the helm of La Pergola, Heinz Beck has certainly become fluent with Rome and Roman food. This dish was both an homage to Roman food and a wonderful fine dining interpretation of it. Cotiche is the Roman version of pork crackling, in and of itself, not typical three star Michelin fare no matter how delicious it may be. Beck’s cotiche was certainly delicious, but it was all the more marvelous in that it had been prepared as a cannolo stuffed with cannelini beans. With a little minestra, sweet scallops and a touch of mint, this was a totally scarpetta-worthy dish (especially with the superb bread on hand).
“The Sea” has become one of Heinz Beck’s signature dishes and deservedly so. The name of the dish would be pretentious if it didn’t deliver, but it did. Warm scampi consommé was poured over a green, dehydrated scampi “rock” into a bowl containing venus clams, percebes (barnacles) and salicornia. The effect was a bit of magic. This dish represents modern cooking at its best. It had fun effects, but the effects were used to enhance this dish full of wonderful, yet subtle flavor. I had never previously had percebes served outside the shell, truly a luxury.
I had asked for interesting wines that I likely would not have had before. Such was this Fiorduva, a sunny, high alcohol wine from Amalfi. The alcohol came from the high natural sugar content of the grapes, Fenile, Ginestra and Ripoli, that comprised the wine. It was tasty and worked well with the next course.
This pasta dish, another Beck signature dish, was absurdly delicious. His Fagotelli “La Pergola” was a riff on another Roman classic, Carbonara. The sauce, however, resided within the pasta – a Roman approach to Shanghai-style soup dumplings. Beck’s pasta was ethereally light and thin, perfectly delicate and just extraordinary. The carbonara flavors were sensational. This dish took the best of Italian food up several levels of sophistication. I had had a great traditional carbonara the evening before at Roscioli. While that was wonderful, this was sublime. In fine dining, it is not sufficient to prepare a dish based upon a traditional dish and only match it. The pyrotechnics are then simply for show. This dish was what fine dining is all about. It made an already great dish even better. Beck’s Fagotelli was one of the best dishes of this trip and indeed of my year, so far. This dish was Chef Beck’s love letter to Rome and it showed.
Beck’s pasta dishes were sensational. This house made, hand-made maccheroni had incredible depth of flavor from the shrimp that was augmented by the subtle flavor of the eggplant and the great textural contrast of the croutons. The pasta itself had wonderful texture and flavor that sang to me. The production was masterful and actually rivaled the fagotelli in terms of pure gustatory pleasure. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Until this dish, there was a strong Italian feel to the menu. This one had a more international flair to it. The tempura was light and crisp. The squid puree was subtle, but tasty and the shredded celery on top added clean notes. This was a good dish, but not as exceptional as its two immediate predecessors. Of course, those two dishes were very difficult acts to follow. This dish might have been more of a standout on a different menu or a different place on this menu.
Despite the fact that the sauce was a pesto made with basil and parsley, this dish had a very international feel to it, that reminded me of dining in Germany with its love of curries. The john dory was beautifully cooked, moist and tender. It was covered with the slightly sweet curry and the sweetness was further enhanced by the presence of the scampi. It was a dish of subtlety that continued to grow on me as I ate it.
Our wine pairings shifted to red in the form of a lovely Barolo, the 1997 Conteis Cerequio from Cromis, a Gaja label. The wine was rich and on point. Relatively low in alcohol at 13.5% the still vibrant nebbiolo maintained great tannic structure, layers of complexity and an abundance of fruit without an overwhelming influence of oak. It was quite a lovely pour from a great vintage.
The final savory course was an exquisitely prepared pigeon that was served with a few unusual elements. A puree of crusts from black bread was something I hadn’t quite encountered before, at least not in the form served here. The grappa sauce and pine nuts gave the dish a bit of an Italian pedigree, but by no means was the dish classically Italian, especially with the inclusion of grapefruit and salsify. Ultimately, the question of the “Italian-ness” of the dish was of no significant import either way. It was delicious and luxurious – fitting for a Michelin 3 star restaurant regardless of its geography. There were already enough Italian components of the meal to satisfy one’s sense of terra or terroir, something that is important for me when dining out, especially while traveling.
Cheese is generally given much greater stature in Europe’s temples of fine dining than they are in the United States. Perhaps it is because they have a much greater and longer tradition of serving and eating great cheeses than in the United States. American cheeses have come a long way, but they have yet to achieve the level of public appreciation that the great cheeses of Europe have over the centuries. As a result the standards and expectations for cheese at the great old style European three Michelin starred restaurants is typically greater than those of their American peers. Such was the case at La Pergola, where we were presented with a truly enticing cheese cart comprised entirely of cheeses from Italy.
An almost essential component of a cheese plate in Italy is a bit of fine balsamico tradizionale. This one, aged via a solera method for fifty years, was from Reggio-Emiglia.
My son and I each had a selection of seven different cheeses from the Italian cart starting with soft and light and continuing to the stronger cheeses.. The first was a creamy Robiola followed by a fresh, strong goat’s milk cheese from Piemonte (Capreria Occitana) with a coating of ash, a creamy Taleggio from Lombardia, an aged Grana Padano served with 50 year old balsamico, a Pecorino (Pinzani) from Pienza with red fruit jam and a crusty blue from Trentino. The last cheese was a flavorful, 1o year old Bitto from Lombardia that was served on a separate plate. The cheeses were all impeccably affinaged and delicious examples of their varieties. They showed the world class character of Italian cheese. Of all of them, the nutty blue was probably my favorite of the evening.
The wines all evening were well chosen and superb. My final wine did not deviate from that formula. The Clematis, hailing from Abruzzo, was a late harvest Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Zaccagnini made with dried grapes in a passito fashion. It was well balanced with good acid and a fine complement to the dessert.
With this dessert, a frozen red fruit flavored orb with various accompaniments, I felt transported back to my trip to Germany, where this style of dessert appeared at a couple of dinners, one of which, interestingly enough was the previously mentioned Schwarzwald Stube. The two in Germany were based on apple, but it was the fall then, while this was spring. Beck’s flavor profile was different, though still traditional. Questions of original technique aside, these were all delicious desserts that were exquisitely crafted and worthy of their three star surroundings.
Our meal ended with these mignardises as well as additional unpictured chocolate bon bons. They maintained the quality of this extraordinary meal.
Heinz Beck has adopted Rome and Rome has adopted Beck. He succeeds in paying wonderful homage to his chosen city and manages to make what could very well be just another fancy international restaurant, into one that represents its vaunted and special location. La Pergola is not a trend-setting, groundbreaking restaurant. It isn’t meant to be. What it is meant to be and what it succeeds at tremendously is a wonderful, luxurious restaurant serving exquisitely prepared and delicious auteur food. The service, led by Simone, was everything one would expect from a restaurant of this caliber. It was warm, efficient and thorough, without ever being intimidating. They were also quite solicitous of my son, who did an incredible job of dining here and throughout our trip. This certainly made the cost – not inexpensive – more than worthwhile for me. He enjoyed his meal and he enjoyed the experience. So did I. It turned out to be a magical evening and it could not have been a better place to end this supremely unforgettable father-son trip.