La Pergola – Fine Dining (3*) – Rome
La Pergola sits in the Waldorf Astoria overlooking the beauty of the city of Rome. It is a picture of opulence. Imagine a five star hotel, cover it in marble and gold and you’d just about reach its grandeur. To get to the restaurant you ascend to the one of the top floors of the hotel. The dining room is the perfect mix of comfort and luxury, it is small but packed with numerous pieces of art. The real star though is the view both from the outside balcony and from our table. Stunning.
At this point I need to mention something. All of my reviews as an entirely anonymous diner, except this one. I booked online using my name (I often don’t in Nottingham just in case) a few months in advance with no more information provided than usual. After initial greetings the Head Waiter declared that he had seen I was a food blogger and we had a conversation about restaurants. There was no way they could have known this other than researching their diners so I was particularly impressed. Whilst this could have meant I received preferential treatment I didn’t observe any difference until at the end when we had a long conversation with the chef.
There is one menu, or rather two versions of the same menu with 10 or 7 courses at the options. We considered just 7 but it would be rude to come this way but miss out on the full experience. A handful of things set restaurants like this apart and it is some of the smaller things I will remember about La Pergola. Rather than a bread roll a trolley arrived complete with full loaves and a man armed with a knife. Some excellent oil, as well as butter, was delivered before a choice of 5 salts became perhaps the food decision I have been least equipped to make for some time. I settled on the Persian blue crystal salt and I was happy with my choice, its clear mineral-y flavour actually quite different from the usual rock or sea salt that I’m used to.
The early highs of the setting, service (and embellishments like the salt) meant my expectations were peaking at this point. To be honest, the first two courses didn’t meet them. They were good, of course they were, but not memorable which is a barometer for me when you’re at this level of restaurant. A tartar of amberjack, a lesser used fish in my experience and I struggle to compare it to much I have had before. It was fresh yet did have more flavour than the more common white fishes. Serving it on strawberry ice was interesting and overall gave the dish the feel of a palate cleanser to start the meal. There was a lot more going on in the second course, white asparagus seaweed pesto and squid. A pretty bold combination and I particularly liked the white asparagus but the pesto wasn’t for me. It was a irony dark green affair that overpowered the delicate squid a little.
The next dish got me singing again, simple but such high quality ingredients the star of the show. Scampi (that was as sweet and tasty as any I have had) was served with an early summer trio of broad beans, peas and artichoke. Almost nothing more to say, not truly memorable but a solid dish for 2/3 star level. Most restaurants have a signature dish and at La Pergola their Fagottelli has become pretty famous. As far I can tell Fagottelli is an invention of La Pergola’s executive chef Heinz Beck, small filled pasta with a carbonara sauce inside. The pasta itself was impeccably thin, a thinness that I am not convinced could even be achieved in an amateur kitchen. The liquid filling was unquestionably a great carbonara but somehow lighter and didn’t suffer from being too rich. Unquestionably the best pasta dish I have ever eaten.
Following that is tough, what arrived was a course that probably looks like people’s ideal of what is wrong with fine dining. The shrimp, squid and john dory were all so fresh, so subtle and so delicate that the lighted of touches was needed to enhance them. The bowl they are served atop contained some hot coals that a citrus infusion was drizzled over to gently cooked them in some steam. High quality fish that was tender beyond belief with a little smoky citrus hit, it was unique and excellent. The last of an impressive array of fish was with cod and celery sauce and a curry crust. As you might imagine the fish was perfectly cooked, the curry crust providing a flash of flavour without overpowering the cod. I wouldn’t say the sauce was an appealing colour and was sweeter than I expected, not quite in harmony with the Indian flavours.
On reflection the main course of loin of lamb was the only real meat of the night. It was worth waiting for though, the lamb really the star with the simple fennel crust providing excellent flavour and texture. Accompanying goats cheese seemed to have been carefully selected, not too strong but a background saltiness that almost added to the seasoning of the meat. A sweet lamby sauce was light but had enough going on to pull things together and cap another winner of a dish. Our menu came with a cheese course which is quite hard to rate. The most noteworthy part was me asking if they had any Comte to a reminder that they obviously only serve Italian cheeses!
The first of two desserts arrived and they hadn’t held back on the theatre. “The sun” probably wouldn’t look much without the elaborate plates that lit the dessert from below but it was certainly different and certainly impressive. I’m not sure whether the picture really does it justice but it could have been that the evenings wine meant I had fonder memories. Beneath the considerable front there was a little more style than there was substance, a fairly classic combination of chocolate and passion fruit but nothing ground breaking. To round off the meal a very pretty sphere of iced red fruit came atop some further chocolate. The texture as well as the sharpness of the fruit did an excellent job of cutting through the rich chocolate. Very enjoyable but reflecting on them the desserts didn’t quite reach the highs of the savoury courses.
Petit fours were a selection of different chocolates that we struggled to finish after the feast that had gone before. We did request some to take home and were furnished with an impressive boxful. As well as enjoying these we had the opportunity to join the chef (Heniz Beck) for a conversation, he chatted to other diners too and seemed genuinely happy to engage with his clientele. The same cannot be said for all chefs. The most striking thing from our discussion was probably about his philosophy / style. I hadn’t appreciated as I was enjoying the dishes how much of the food could be considered healthy. Maybe not in the same vein as Weightwatchers (other fat clubs available) but for a fine dining restaurant there was no fatty meat, no rich buttery sauces so the skill to extract such flavours without these was all the more impressive.
This experience is by no means cheap, €245 for the tasting menu will rightly make your eyes water. For perspective this is actually over £40 cheaper than dining at The Fat Duck (as I did in 2015), and the Italian restaurant would certainly get my custom again before Heston’s flagship restaurant. There was also a wine flight at just over €100 with some truly excellent pairings that I have since sought out and personally bought, a Brunello di Montalcino a particular highlight. La Pergola delivered some of the best food I have ever eaten in a stunning setting with exceptional service. It is placed by Michelin and other guides amongst the world’s top restaurants, a verdict I struggle to argue against.
Restaurant website: https://romecavalieri.com/la-pergola/