La Pergola at the Waldorf Astoria in Rome was never on our short list of restaurants to seek out. Actually, Rome wasn’t on the short list either, but when we decided to vacation in Italy instead of France we thought it worth a review of the Michelin list. Turns out, there is only one 3-star restaurant in Rome. There is literally no way we can pass this up.
This will be our first European Michelin-stared dinner. We’ve pointed out before that our French Laundry experience had spoiled us to the point that we wondered if other restaurants would ever stack-up. We speculated that France might have an equivalent. But we also wondered if the level of formality might go up with out being “nicer.”
Of course, this is not France. It’s Italy and that means several things: The recipes are codified differently, the flavor profiles are different, and the traditions for service are different. Also, Rome is not a foodie city. Then again, Chef Heinz Beck is German, so maybe we can lump all of Europe together. As Americans, this is our best option.
What’s the most important distinction between American and European Michelin 3-star restaurants? Wine portions.
Americans, as we know, are pretty tight with the wine. Six 2-ounce pours are about all you’re going to get on a tasting menu. It’s all carefully measured and administered. You’ll leave happy, but standing.
At La Pergola they do things a little bit differently. Each course has its prescribed wine selection. Your two ounces are poured shortly after the last course is cleared. But then something sneaky happens: they refill the wine if you drink it.
This has significant ramifications. If the wine is good (and it was), one might be inclined to finish before the food arrives. Refill. And if you empty the glass while you’re still eating? Refill. At this rate we are killing over a bottle a piece. It’s hard to know since we were not keeping track and if we had, would not have been able to do math.
Obviously it was a good night, if a little blurry. Moments stand out: The spectacular sunset over the Vatican. The water menu. A pleasant and nervous young man serving bread as if he would be beaten by the chef for bad performance (they do that in Europe). A trolley of unpasteurized cheese. The waiters pulling together around the credit card machine to see Mickey Mouse on our Disney Visa card.
We were generally impressed with the food. The progression of stronger to lighter flavor was unexpected, the reverse of most tasting menus. They started with beef and progressed down through shell fish, pasta, fish, then ending on veal. It worked well and we wondered if that was an affectation of Italy or the Chef’s creation. We would have thought to ask when he came to table if we weren’t smashed.
The most notable dish was the fagottelli. Little pasta packets containing their own sauce. They explode in your mouth like soup dumplings, Italian style. They are a standard on the menu and for good reason.
The menu was short on molecular gastronomic tricks. One exception was the tuna with tuna powder. No tuna is tastier than tuna dredged in a powdered version of itself.
What La Pergola lacked in tricks it made up for in flavor. Each dish was perfectly cooked. And cooked a la minute, so there was very little cheating in terms of plating pre-prepared components.
Desserts were very good, but again we are a little fuzzy on the details. Something chocolate. Something fruit flavored. In addition to the plated desserts a box with little drawers filled with treats was placed on the table just to make sure you were maxed-out.
Service was exceptional. Formal, but not overbearing. Courses were served at a regular, unhurried pace. As mentioned we were never to want for bread or wine. The waiters might have been a little over attentive at the start of the evening, but by the time the tables filled we hardly noticed them.
Tables are given a generous amount of space. Conversations at neighboring tables did not spill over to ours and servers had plenty of room to work. While we were seated on the terrace, we could have been seated inside because they keep two tables for each party; one in and one out in case the weather changes.
Overall, La Pergola met our expectations by showing a level of skill and luxury rarely seen.