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Review of La Pergola - Rome, Italy (detailed review)

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An Evening of Extravagance and Wonder

La Pergola - Cavelieri Hilton - Rome, Italy

A Celebration of Brian's 50th Birthday

Date: 11/26/2010

Overall review

Twenty years ago, my wife and I were lucky enough to enjoy 3 Michelin Three Star Restaurants, all in France. Since then, I am no longer in the computer business, have worked in restaurants, learned to cook fairly well and now sell wine for a living. We rarely eat out as I love to cook and there are few better dining options around. I also have access to almost anything I need and have lots of wine in the "cellar" just waiting to be drunk.

We now also have a 14 year old daughter who was weaned on the soup stock veggies, refused medium-well cooked steak at 4, ordered linguini vongole at 9, and; well you get the idea. My two girls surprised me with a quick trip to Rome to celebrate my 50th Birthday. Arrive midday Wednesday, depart Sunday morning. The trip included dinner for the three of us at La Pergola.

My initial reaction was total disbelief! The trip was a fantastic idea; the dinner reservation was pure fantasy. Should dinner be more than a mortgage payment? Echo of Catholic School nuns from 40 years ago rang out saying "there are starving children. . . .", etc.. But, who the heck was I to say no! Liz does the books and budget; she's making the reservation; I succumbed. Plus I kind of looked forward to seeing the product that could be created with the absolute best materials in a city/country of phenomenal ingredients.

Here is the tale:

Arrived at 7:30pm - Got into a cab back to our apartment 1:20am

Walked the hotel and arrived upstairs for dinner around 7:45pm. Reservation was at 8:30

Decided to have a drink and peruse the wine list (turns out there were two - more later)

Drinks were basically 18Euros (28$US) and went up from there. My daughter order a N/A fruit juice at 15 Euros and our vodka tonics were 18 Eros. Homemade "pretzels" and macadamia nuts were a nice touch. Our drinks were substantial, basically doubles, and lasted a good 45 minutes. The glasses were exceptionally delicate - fantastic! I always said that no one complains about a good drink at any price - no complaints.

Then the "bar snacks" arrived. A custom made Lucite "tray" held a skewer vertically with minced shrimp wrapped with rice paper and quick fried - one bite of pure heaven. The next treat in line and only be described as "a paper thin "fruit rollup" of tomato" wrapped around a 1/2" ball of fresh buffalo mozzarella - now we are seeing Herr Beck's genius. . . The third little tidbit was a paper-thin wood veneer "cone" containing tempura "fries" of zucchini, sweet potato and orange bell peppers. All perfect batonette, 1/4 inch wide by about 2.5 inches long - bar snacks on steroids.

The wine lists were divided into two separate and equally sized tomes. The non-Italian list was interesting but got a cursory review. It was reminiscent of the French versions 20 years ago in it's 20+ vintage of D'Yquem and First growth Bordeaux, the best burgundies from the best producers and parcels, etc.. It was the Italian list that piqued my interest. After all, when in Rome. . .

The Cliff Notes version is; this is a Michelin 3 Star - the only one in Rome. Get out the Gambero Rosso for the past 15 years and take the cream of the crop. The best of everything. You name it; it was on the list. What amazed me was the depth of older vintage whites. I didn’t have the budget or the nerve to order a 1999 Soave.

The wine steward was fantastic although a bit flustered that he didn't a corresponding wine sampler to accompany the 9 course menu. His initial recommendation was a crisp white in the 40 Euro range. After letting him know that the Anselmi Capital Croce is, IMHO, one of the great, value priced wines in the world, we decided on:

Pieropan Soave "La Rocca" 2005 - about $75US

Vietti Barbera d'Alba "Scarrone" 2005 - about $90US

Both were fantastic.

They are also apparently famous for their "water list". A list of about 25 waters from around the world. Each has a 1/3 page description of mineral content, amount of carbonation, etc. etc. I'm a guy that drinks water when I'm thirsty and to take meds. I also love about 500ml of San Pellegrino with dinner. Other than that I am not your quintessential American walking around with my "adult pacifier" everywhere I go. People complain about $3 gas but will pay $9+ for Desani filtered Atlanta tap water. Anyway, we had a great water from Umbria with a hint of frizzante and passed on the "Bling™" from some movie producer in California at 155Euros or the ???? water from Japan with the Swarovski crystals at 215Euros. Mr. P.T. Barnum was correct. . . .

Ohhh, almost forgot. I thought taking pictures of the food in this environment (no recession here - they were full) would be rude so I asked our server if he would be willing to take pictures of each course in the kitchen before he brought it out. His response was "you American's are kind of crazy about your food." That earned him a big tip!

Ok - so what about the food - hear it comes, I'm getting tired of typing.

Amuse Bouche - 3 quenelles of tartare, again; on a Lucite box, with Arrugula foam, and a small "cream roll" of parmesan and a few specks of black volcanic salt - GOOD MORNING tastebuds!

We were then served Sicilian olive oil and a choice of salts and an assortment of rolls. I hate to admit I had that flashback of my parents telling me "not to fill up on the bread" just as I said it to the rest of my family. There were 3 vases of apricot hued roses on the table and votive candles "sprinkled" around the table.

The Grand 9 Course Tasting Menu

Carpaccio of Lobster and Avocado and Cherry Tomatoes

A room temp pureé of avocado as a base, slightly warmed cold water lobster sliced 1/8" thick over the avocado, 3 small quenelles of tomato concasse that were room temp and loaded with fruity olive oil. A few sprigs of micro greens and dots of 25 year balsamic around the plate.

Grilled "La Perle Blanche" Oysters on pumpkin cream with Parsley puff

The only way I knew they might have been grilled was the menu and a hint of smokiness on the oyster. The parsley puff was actually parsley foam. There was a teaspoon sized portion of very tiny, delicate sea beans with just a hint of soy and sesame oil - just to bring out the unami???

Wholemeal "maccheroncini al terretto" with Red Shrimps, smoked aubergine pureé and croutons

Maybe the most interesting course of the evening. The pasta was made from some sort of dark whole grain; maybe buckwheat, maybe ground spelt. The pasta was a tube half way between the thickness/radius of bucatini and penne. Interestingly, it was about 2.5 inches long; just long enough that you had to stab it just right or cut it in half.

The base of the plate was coated with a smoky, absolutely smooth eggplant pureé. There were then noodles which were topped with 3 red shrimp. I've seen these shrimp in markets in Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, etc. but never had the opportunity to cook them. They were as sweet and delicately textured as fresh Japanese sweet shrimp - Amaebi but with the bright red edges of perfectly cooked Maine lobster. We caught a hint of orange citrus.

Turns out the "croutons" were actually fine breadcrumbs which were toasted with anchovies and orange rind and then used to decorate the plate and add texture to 3 relatively soft ingredients.

I was hoping the girls might leave some but no such luck - this was VERY good.

Emincé of Scallops on lentil with pearls of tapioca and balsamic vinegar

A slightly creamy, delicate pureé/mix of lentils set out in a rectangle on the plate topped with paper thin slices of scallops (about the size of a US quarter) It was garnished with tiny sprigs of chervil and tapioca pearls that must have been macerated in great balsamic.

Very nice

Filet of Seabass in licorice crust on sweet pepper and tarragon sauce

Neither my wife nor daughter like licorice so I knew this would be interesting. The plate may have been the highlight of the dish - no wait, sorry chef - the fish was awesome. (I worked in kitchens long enough to feel the hot, dripping sauté pan being hurled across the line. . .) It was the package that was a little off for us.

The plate was a huge rimmed soup with a small bowl and angled down toward you. Very nice.

The fish was perfectly cooked and probably not out of the water more than 24 hours. It was topped with a perfect strip of licorice "crust" which was more like a paper thin fruit rollup which was more like tarragon on steroids. The sauce was a delicate broth of sweet pepper.

Interesting, but not our favorite.

Terrine of Rabbit with artichoke vinaigrette and beetroots

Ok - now for the first red wine course. . . Also, the first "high-tech" course. Three seconds after I put the first bite in my mouth I knew this was unlike anything I had ever tasted or cooked before; sous-vide! A later conversation with Chef Beck confirmed this. I may be asking Santa for a seal-a-meal - it's keeping the temperature constant that's the tough part.

The beauty of this was that it appeared that the chef used the tiny thin strip of "belly meat" from the rabbit (yes, it was tiny and very thin) to kind of act as the caul fat to hold this all together. It was basically a membrane of silver skin so the sous-vide was perfect. The texture of the rabbit prepared this way was perfect.

This dish was fantastic. There were slivers of crispy fried artichoke petals to add texture.

Suckling Pig's Cheeks with curly endive, "Burrata" and chili flavored popped rice

Well, this was the first dish that was actually rich and reminded us that we had had 9 courses over about 3 1/2 hours. I tasted each component separately and it just didn't work like the sum of the parts - have to say, best demi-glace ever - rich and velvety. The curly endive as actually pureéd and in the States we would call it curly chicory. Think VERY dark green - it was salty but again, the dish as a whole was great. The 'burrata" was a ribbon of what you would find at the heart of great burrata mozz, but I suspect it may have been something else. A dap of that, a nugget of the cheek, and a swipe of the sauce spoon to collect a bit of the demi and a bit of the pureé and life was very good.

The chili flavored rice - think Rice Krispies with seasoning (but made in-house) - added texture both visually and for mouth feel.

A fine selection of cheeses from the trolley

My daughter actually ate almost her entire cheese course. A few years back she really didn't eat "good" cheese at all - she even swiped some of Liz's parmesan.

Liz and I had - 2 medium ripe goat cheeses, 2 Tallagio (one from Lombardy, one from Piemonte), a 36 month parmesan with 50 yr balsamic, Cacciovalo - aged 1 year mozz, a pecorino from Siena served with a macerated fig, and a gorgonzola dolce from Alto Adige

I twinge of fullness is starting to set in!

Grand Dessert

Now things just start to get crazy - I'll try to be brief. . .

First round:

Lime Souffle, two raspberries topped with Crème Anglese and "bruleed" for a second, and a "cappacino" in a shot glass with ultra rich milk chocolate sauce topped with coconut foam

The tower of cookies and treats arrives -

Twelve little drawers, each with 3 treats just waiting for us to enjoy (linzer torts, pistachio macaroons, homemade marshmallows, "elephant ears" about an inch round, marzipan "sushi" etc. etc.. . .

Second Round:

Vanilla sorbet with mango, mousse of chocolate with caramel and whipped cream, dark chocolate "log" with mocha mousse, tiny wild strawberries in champagne aspic.

Then we had coffee and a plate of handmade chocolates arrived

Then, the staff sang happy birthday and presented me with a birthday cake

Overall - an evening we'll all remember forever.

I must thank the front and back staff at La Pergola for demonstrating what being a virtuoso is all about. I hope you realize the pleasure that you can bring to people who want to share all of this with you - not simply because we have the money - but because for some of us - this is theatre, ballet, opera and a meal all wrapped into one.

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This is a great detailed review, thanks. Sounds like a wonderful evening for you all. I would like to check out this restaurant when I go to Rome again this summer.

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I just started working at a new restaurant in the center of Florence and all of rest of the cooks told me they think La Pergola is by far the best restaurant in Italy. It is our plan to go to eat there all togeather sometime in the next few months. After reading your review I am even more excited. Thank you very much for such a thoughtful piece.

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Italian food is possibly the most famous western food in the world. Wherever you go outside Europe, it’s more likely to find Italian restaurants than French’s or American’s. However, in terms its place among the world’s finest places to eat, Italian cuisine is surpassed by its French counterpart. Where to find a great one? Normally, the easiest place to start will be going to the capital where generally the best of the best will be there. When I got the chance to visit Roma early last year, it’s pretty much unanimous that La Pergola (LP) is the top place serving Italian dishes.

Food (and wine) - 94/100

As it has been discussed, is it possible that the best Italian cuisine is prepared by a German? We’ll see soon. At the beginning, I was actually interested in tasting LP’s full degustation menu, but my parents did not seem to be excited to spend 4+ hours in the restaurants. Hence, we went for the a la carte. Here what I ate

- "Tete de veau" with artichoke and black truffle vinaigrette - Only a versatile chef with his well-trained brigades will be able to prepare this 'calf's head' correctly. It's not really delicious, but intense and rustic; adventurous yet full of culinary tradition

- Fagottelli "La Pergola" - 'Ravioli' of egg and pecorino custard served with carbonara sauce, cheese and Serawak pepper. Arguably the best dish for this meal, each byte will reveal a flavor of tasty cream and slight 'spices'. The portion is too small for an ala carte menu … Probably, my best pasta ever

- Veal cheeks with black truffle, apple puree and topinambur - The best part of cheeks is cooked and resulted in a strong and refined flavor, intensified with black truffle. They're balanced by the soft puree and artichoke, personally I would've preferred mashed potato or polenta as my side dishes

- Coffee souffle served with ice cream - The ultimate dessert for coffee lover? The souffle is soft, fragrant and airy, the taste is rather strong but not cloying all surprisingly.

My mom and dad have sea bass with olive oil and black cod with on chickpea puree. While they enjoy the fish’s fresh meat, flavor wise … they thought the fishes were not that delicious. They told me they would rather have HK style steam fish. They enjoyed their spaghetti cooked al dente with sweet shrimp earlier. It has an impressive wine collection – the best comprehensive I’ve ever seen in Italy. I only have a glass of red Tuscany wine. Based on this meal, I find that chef Beck has an outstanding culinary skill; his dishes were like a work of art with delicate touch, it’s unlikely you’ll see any aggressive nature on his cooking. Hence, being delicious may not always be the priority – kinda like chef Alleno’s dishes at Le Meurice. The best in Rome? Definitely. The best in Italy? I like Le Calandre better. It’s 94/100 (high 2 ½* star in my notes)

Service (and ambiance) - 92/100

La Pergola possibly tries to imitate or has many similarities to Le Louis XV. Firstly, it’s located in the city’s top hotels (Hilton Cavalieri) with breathtaking city views – nearly everything luxurious will not be spared: Riedel glassware, wood paneling, and painted ceilings. As you wind down the meal, they will change the whole table arrangements – flickering candles and different flowers. In addition to the usual napkins (I heard they will put the regular guests’ initials on their napkins), they put extra facial tissue – whenever you leave the table, the napkin would be replaced. It also has water menu, a few of them cost as much as EUR 100. Despite all these, I feel something a bit lacking in the atmosphere … then I realized the tables are not as spacious as Ducasse Monaco, also the ceiling was not that high either (compared to Le Louis XV).

The service staffs were lead by signore Umberto Giraudo who used to work at Le Louis XV, maybe this explained the situation above. The restaurant was about 70% full and only at the beginning Mr. Giraudo served our table. Most staffs worked very hard to impress the guests, but the flow was not as liquid as the service at Ducasse Monaco. Generally, the service was really good except our captain. Somehow, whenever we asked for something, he seemed to be in rush and we noticed the smile was not that sincere. Towards the end of the meal, I asked if I could see the kitchen and meet chef Beck – he’s hesitant and rejected my request because the restaurant was busy without checking with the kitchen. I didn’t really believe him … on the way out, I was talking to the lady host who always smiles and gracious – she immediately escorted me to the kitchen without any issue. That’s the only service issue we face that ruined a bit of the good hospitality rendered by La Pergola team. Chef Beck was kind and nice. The kitchen is almost as big as a tennis court … again, only Le Louis XV has bigger kitchen based on the 3-star restaurants I’ve visited. I bestowed 93/100 (a solid 2 ½*) for my overall dining experience here – nice dining places, but not yet quite the level of L’Arpege or Ledoyen.

For the dishes’ pictures: La Pergola '10

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