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Grand Awards 2004: La Pergola and Tru

Posted: September 1, 2004

Veteran chef Heinz Beck strives to give diners at La Pergola an uplifting experience.
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La Pergola

La Pergola
Grace and sophistication above Rome

One might expect the ambience at Rome's La Pergola to be hushed and stuffy, considering the restaurant's almost legendary reputation as one of the best in Italy. On the contrary, La Pergola remains incredibly relaxed and congenial despite the seriously formal dining room, the breathtaking panoramic view of Rome, and the energetic army of servers swirling around the dozen or so tables.

Perched atop the plush Cavalieri Hilton hotel on 15 acres in the hills overlooking the center of Rome, La Pergola delivers one of Italy's great dining experiences, offering precise yet flavorful food, a stunning array of wines and attentive service.

The excellence of the restaurant can be attributed to the talents of chef Heinz Beck, manager Umberto Giraudo and head sommelier Marco Reitano. "I don't want to stress my customers," says the 40-year-old Beck, a German import who's been at La Pergola for about a decade now. "They are already stressed all day. They have to come here and relax, and enjoy good food and wine."

Good wine is certainly no problem-there are about 2,200 selections from which to choose. The restaurant has two lists-one for Italian wines and the other for foreign bottles, primarily French-based on an inventory of about 52,000 bottles in various temperature-controlled cellars. What's particularly good about the collection is that it offers not only trophy wines and high-priced bottles, but many truly excellent reds and whites for $50 to $70 as well. Friuli and Tuscany are best represented at this price level.

However, if you want to raise the ante on your visit, there are plenty of great Italian bottles. For instance, there are close to 90 different labels of Brunello di Montalcino covering all the outstanding vintages back to 1985. Piedmont is equally strong, with all the top recent years available from acclaimed producers such as Domenico Clerico, Aldo Conterno, Pio Cesare and Angelo Gaja. Prices for many of these wines are only slightly more than the U.S. retail price.

There also are very good verticals (dozens of vintages for some labels) of superstar Italian producers: Gaja, Conterno, Vietti, Antinori (Solaia, Tignanello and Guado al Tasso), San Guido (Sassicaia) and Ornellaia (both the estate's namesake red and Masseto) among them. Plus there's a small selection of numerous vintages of tiny, hard-to-find cantine such as Abruzzo's Valentini, Friuli's Gravner, Lombardy's Nino Negri, Veneto's Quintarelli, Tuscany's Le Macchiole and Campania's Montevetrano.

Reitano is an excellent source of information on producers and vintages. He also has some treasures not published on the list. On my visit, he suggested a 1993 Terlano Weissburgunder (Pinot Bianco) as an aperitif, and the mature yet vibrant white from Alto Adige was a revelation. The sommelier is also very proud of his French selection, which covers all the big names, from Haut-Brion to Romanée-Conti. There are dozens of vintages of such wines from all the top-of-the-charts years. But La Pergola is a place to drink Italian wines.

Beck keeps his food subtle and focused, to complement the wine list. He says he takes his inspiration from the sunny cuisine of Sicily, where his wife comes from, but he's fond of all Italian cuisine and says he looks to "modernize and lighten" classic dishes. For instance, a single large raviolilike starter filled with finely diced Mediterranean vegetables and served in a bit of olive oil and broth is fresh, light and flavorful. But Beck's magic is the ravioli itself, which is actually made of sea bass carpaccio.

If you are in Italy, make every effort to dine here. The wine list alone is worth the trip. Beck and the team at La Pergola surprise and please you the entire evening.

-- James Suckling

Rome Cavalieri Hilton, 101 Via Cadlolo, Rome, Italy 00136
Telephone (011) 39-063-509-2152
Wine selections 1,700
Number of bottles 50,000

Progress and tradition in Chicago

Your meal at Tru should really begin with the caviar staircase, a signature presentation of ascending rectangular glass platforms. At the bottom are typical caviar garnishes-hard-boiled egg, red onions and capers. But on higher steps are golden whitefish roe, wasabi-infused roe and, at the top, traditional osetra or beluga.

The staircase is quintessential Tru: Bold executive chef and partner Rick Tramonto succeeds with a push and pull between tradition and modernity that frames the entire dining and wine experience.

Tru builds your expectations high-as you enter, you step into a dark, velvet-draped hostess area before passing by the bar and into the main room, a wide-open dining room with robotic-armlike light fixtures, minimalist decor and sparingly placed contemporary art. Floor-to-ceiling white drapes cover the windows, effectively removing the peripheral distraction of pedestrians outside while keeping you tuned to the city.

The wine list at Tru is centered on an extremely impressive Burgundy lineup. Classics such as the Henri Jayer Échézeaux 1978 ($3,900) and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche 1969 ($3,450) are the headliners, while selections from Méo-Camuzet, Robert Chevillon, Comte Georges de Vogüé, J.-F. Coche-Dury, Domaine Leflaive and Domaine des Comtes Lafon add considerable range.

Bordeaux and Rhône also get comprehensive coverage-there are 15 vintages of Château Latour and seven vintages of Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, for instance-while the choices from the Loire, Provence, Champagne and Alsace show savvy. But there's more to the list than France.

"I think the list is balanced between classics and modern wines," says sommelier Scott Tyree, echoing the theme set by Tramonto. Tru's wine program, which has been overseen by Tyree since the restaurant opened five years ago, has grown steadily from 250 selections to more than 1,300, now backed by an inventory of 20,000 bottles.

The list's modernity comes from its remarkable breadth, with California, Australia and Spain all well-represented, while selections from South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand and Greece round out the roster. There is also strong representation of German and Austrian whites, wines that prove to be ideal foils for Tramonto's seafood-dominated cuisine, highlights of which include octopus carpaccio and roasted Columbia River sturgeon. Meat lovers need not worry-foie gras, venison and lamb are all superbly prepared as well.

"The menu is very progressive, so you have to have high-acid, non-oaked dry white wines," says Tyree. So progressive, in fact, that the chef's spontaneous tasting menu has each course prepared differently for each person at the table-meaning a table of six diners ordering the 10-course menu will wind up with 60 different plates of food. "And that's a challenge for the wine program," says Tyree, who, along with assistant sommelier Aaron Elliott, must open many different bottles to pour individual glasses to match the myriad dishes the kitchen sends out.

Tyree also maintains a selection of more than 90 half-bottles, giving needed flexibility. Though three- and four-digit prices abound, the wine list also provides numerous values, with dozens of wines listed for less than $60, such as the Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2003 ($42) or Álvaro Palacios Priorat Les Terrasses 2001 ($55). Riedel stemware is employed exclusively (two to four kitchen staffers a night have the sole responsibility of keeping all the glasses polished), while spring water is poured complimentarily.

There's attention to detail in the pristine presentation of the list, which despite its size is very easy to navigate. It's also present in the waitstaff, trained by Tyree, who handle the wine service with a level of professionalism usually reserved for formal sommeliers. The expense and effort is considerable, but Tramonto sums it up by saying, "We try to blow away everyone who comes in."

-- James Molesworth

676 N. St. Clair St., Chicago, IL 60611
Telephone (312) 202-0001
Wine selections 1,350
Number of bottles 20,000

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