A dinner at sunset on the terrace of La Pergola in Rome this summer rendered the likelihood of my becoming jaded as a food writer extremely remote. From atop the Cavalieri Hilton, the restaurant overlooks the enormous heart of Rome. To that majesty add cuisine, wine and service of the very highest rank among Italian restaurants, then factor in the curiosity of the chef being German, and the notion that I might someday grow world-weary becomes folly.
In a country where it is exceedingly easy to eat exceedingly well, dining at the haute cuisine level is still a comparative rarity. Only a handful of restaurants in Italy -- Dal Pescatore in Canneto sull'Oglio, Don Alfonso in Sant'Agata, Al Sorriso in Soriso, Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence and a few others -- show as extraordinary a commitment to the good life as La Pergola.
With a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning wine cellar whose holdings exceed 50,000 bottles, a choice of 20 Italian mineral waters, a 10-page tea and coffee menu (which includes a decoction called "Gold of the Five Dynasties" at $34 a pot), Murano glassware, Bernardaud china and petits-fours delivered in a handcrafted, pounded-silver chest of drawers, La Pergola attends to even the smallest details.
There is only one seating, so once maître-d' Umberto Giraudo leads you to your table, it is yours for the entire evening. The interior dining room is formal but amiably lit to reduce the prospect of stuffiness. Slender marble columns, rattan chairs, glass panels, gastronomic artwork and huge sprays of flowers lighten the ambience. But if you have the option of dining on the terrace, the full loveliness of "alfresco" will strike you, inspired by the well-spaced tables set with cream-colored linens, the simple wooden chairs with quilted fabric backing and the profusion of greenery and flowers. The artisanal-glass show plates were recast several times before chef Heinz Beck had what he wanted.
The wines are stored in a catacomblike, impeccably cooled cellar that is lovingly maintained by sommelier Marco Reitano, who presents two wine lists -- one strictly Italian, and the other of wines from around the world.
But the soul and driving force of La Pergola is German-born Beck, who fell in love with both Roman cooking and a Roman girl, Teresa, whom he married and to whom he dedicates his cookbook, Beck (Bibliotheca Culinaria, 2001). In it, he articulates the way he marries traditional Roman cookery to his own Northern European sensibility.
"I am always searching for new combinations of flavors and textures, new solutions and surprises, which respect both the local cuisine and Italy's heritage," he says. "Using innovative cooking techniques [and] avant-garde equipment permits me to maintain the intrinsic values of many foods."
The evidence that Beck's search has been both grounding and never ending is in the balance between signature menu items, which he offers throughout the year or in each season, and the number of specials he creates as he continues to learn and taste. But all of the food seems wholly his, without any flourishes for novelty's sake. He cooks with seeming gentleness, or with what the Italians call sprezzatura -- the art of concealed art.
On a recent visit to La Pergola, my wife and I were shown to a table on the canopied terrace. St. Peter's Basilica glowed at a distance in the twilight. A selection of iced Champagnes and spumantes was wheeled to our table on a silver cart. You know things are going to get serious when you open the wine list and find more than 70 Champagnes, including Louis Roederer Cristal '62 and a magnum of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs '73. Indeed, most restaurants in France would kill for the French wines La Pergola holds, including eight vintages of Corton-Charlemagne, 20 of Le Montrachet and nearly 20 of Lafite Rothschild (dating from 1922), 11 of Pétrus (from 1945) and 10 Cheval-Blancs. American holdings are impressive, with three vintages of Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet and seven of Opus One.
And then there is La Pergola's Italian list, which would take longer to read than the Vatican's list of saints. Every region of Italy is amply represented. Some 34 Gaja Barbarescos are available, as are almost 30 white wines from Friuli. The Brunello pages number about five, and there are 15 vintages of Sassicaia, an amazing number of Tuscan Syrahs, and a swath of Sicilian reds that shows just how deep that island's viticulture runs. Then come four pages of half-bottles and 15 pages of large-format bottles, with more than 100 Italian bottlings in magnum and dozens of Brunellos and super Tuscans in jeroboam. Prices on both lists are moderate.
Frankly overwhelmed by a list of this proportion and magnificence, I turned to the extremely affable Signore Reitano, told him my preferences, and asked if he could show me wines from regions not as well-known as Tuscany or Piedmont. I was particularly interested in any wines he liked from Latium itself, the region around Rome usually known for the high-volume Est! Est!! Est!!! and Frascati. Reitano expressed delight, even gratitude, in my asking him to choose the wines, and this seemed to animate him to bound off to the cellar for some very special bottlings.
Within moments, a drink of celery juice, Granny Smith apple juice and ginger ale came to our table -- quite a refreshing sip in the warm June air. Then came a parade of amuses, starting with a morsel of room-temperature guinea fowl with shreds of fried potatoes, and a pink carpaccio of flavorful Roman veal with wilted arugula and nubs of black olives, dotted with a balsamic vinegar and soy sauce and accompanied by a celery crisp. All were simple flavors clearly designed to engage the palate, not rush it. With these amuses and the first and fish courses, Reitano poured a white wine from one of Latium's good, small producers: Le Quinte Virtu' Romane '01 ($45).
Our appetite and anticipation stirred, we were then delighted by one of Beck's many signature items -- veal tail La Pergola, served like warm cotechino sausage atop cooked tomatoes and celery. This very subtle, very refined dish turns on the very old, very hearty Roman dish called coda alla vaccinara, made with oxtail. The sweetest, most golden zucchini flowers of the summer were coated with a zucchini-and-onion batter, deep fried and served in a shellfish and saffron consommé of daunting clarity and depth of flavor, garnished with tiny quail eggs and beluga caviar.
The single pasta dish we were served was a beauty -- fagottelli La Pergola, which were sheer pasta pockets filled with sautéed vegetables and, like perfect Chinese soup dumplings, a broth that seeped over the tongue as I bit into them. Two lovely and light fish courses came next: A fillet of triglia (red mullet) was topped with crisp potatoes, and had baby vegetables cooked in a broth and a small pea soufflé on the side; an emince of turbot was served with minced vegetables and a vinaigrette carefully reduced to the consistency of a liqueur.
For the meat course, Beck brought forth a saddle of extraordinarily tender rabbit cooked in a pastry-covered casserole with mushrooms, artichokes, chestnuts and prunes macerated in Armagnac. The glass casserole was brought to the table, the crust parted with delicacy, and the steaming, aromatic contents were set graciously on the plate.
The second meat dish was a tour de force -- a squab breast and puree made from the bird's thigh meat and mushrooms, topped with a dice of fresh foie gras and cooked in a crépinette made from spinach leaves, and served with a light mustard sauce. This magnificent dish was a showcase for Beck's talent in combining ingredients that make perfect sense with one another and that result in a very refined yet remarkably homey cuisine. With the meats we were served a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo '95 ($106) from one of my favorite Italian producers, Valentino Valentini, whose full-bodied local varietal gained as much from as it gave to the squab and rabbit.
A superb selection of cheeses followed -- most of them regional Italian -- with a choice of half-a-dozen balsamic vinegars, including an 80-year-old Moscato. Desserts reverted to classic form -- a coffee soufflé with coffee ice cream, and a walnut parfait on a bed of apples, followed by the aforementioned silver drawers of petits-fours and chocolates.
As we sat there sipping a Passito di Pantelleria Khamma '94 by Salvatore Murana ($90), we weren't sure if we'd been astonished or humbled by the range and display of Beck's cuisine and the flawless service. We do know that it was an evening comparable with the finest and most romantic of our lives, so, as the moon traded places with the sun in the deepening blue of the Roman night, I felt assured yet again that life holds more than enough pleasures to entertain me for years to come.
John and Galina Mariani's new book is The Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).
Rome Cavalieri Hilton, Via Cadlolo 101
Telephone (011) 39-0-63-50-91
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Appetizers and pastas $34-$44, main courses $49-$55, tasting menus $135 for five courses and $152 for seven
Credit cards All major
Best of Award of Excellence