Nothing sums up Italy better for me than Rome - the rich history and culture; the juxtaposition of modern architecture and ancient buildings; the organised chaos where everything has a way of working itself out in the end; and, most importantly, the passion yet seriousness with which people approach food and cooking.
On my countless visits back to Rome, I must admit fine dining was never something I particularly sought. I was happy revisiting my favourite, as yet, undiscovered trattoria’s, devouring a plate of spaghetti cacio e pepe over a glass of wine, followed by a good espresso and possibly a gelato or two. Yet, since my first visit to Apsleys in London early this year, I had been yearning for more of that divine fagotelli.A dish which, so far, no other restaurant has come close to replicating.
The solution? What else could be better than going to Heinz Beck’s flagship restaurant, La Pergola, where this dish itself was born! Occupying the top floor of the luxurious art-gallery hotel of Waldorf Astoria, La Pergola is no ordinary restaurant. For one, the interior décor of the restaurant is very bold but elegant.
Furthermore, the view over the city of Rome is nothing but mesmerising, with St Peter’s Basilica lit up as your backdrop in the evening. It’s not hard to understand why Beck decided to stay after first arriving in 1994. It was certainly the most spectacular view of Rome that I have ever seen.
Having eventually made it to the table after that jaw-dropping moment, I suddenly felt slightly nervous; would the meal match the splendid view and my fond memories of Apsleys? As we sipped our glass of 2003 Dom Perignon Brut, I started noticing that all the clients around us were Italians… and it was full!
This was all I needed to dispel my fear - if a foreign chef was able to attract the local clientele by adopting their cuisine, he must surely be something special because the odds would certainly be stacked against him. I felt a sense of admiration for Beck's determination, courage and most of all passion for Italian cuisine. Beck’s cuisine is particularly attractive as it is light, very fresh and quite often healthy.
The first few courses highlighted these characteristics, in particular, my favourite the Amberjack marinated in white balsamic vinegar with pomegranate snow. The subtle sweetness of the pomegranate married well with the amberjack carpaccio, which had a lovely aroma and slight touch of acidity from the balsamic vinegar, overall resulting in a very well balanced dish. I particularly enjoyed the cold component to the dish as well as the textural contrast created by the crispy violet potato garnish. His Grilled “La Perle Blanche” oyster on pumpkin cream with parsley puff, in comparison, was a much heartier dish. Despite my initial reservation over the parsley “foam”(as many chef’s have tendencies to add them for aesthetic reasons only) I must admit, that in this case, it added a lovely fragrance and freshness to the sweet and smoky pumpkin soup. I particularly enjoyed the natural seasoning from the grilled oyster, bringing all the components of the dish together in harmony. The sommelier picked out a fresh bone dry bottle of Planeta Carricante 2010 from Sicily to match that was surprisingly rich but fresh with citrus notes; a perfect accompaniment to seafood. A couple of courses into the meal, we were also presented with an unusual treat – a plate for each person with three different types of sea salts.
The yellow Norwegian salt was by far my favourite as it had a distinct smoky flavour and was something I had not encountered before. In contrast, the pinkish-brown volcanic Alaea salt from Hawaii was much more mellow in flavour whereas the white Italian salt from Trapani was rich in minerals. It was delightful to soak our bread in the light Trentino olive oil before dipping into the salt, allowing us to compare and contrast the dramatically varying flavours.
The highlight of the meal, and that which was responsible for leading me here in the first place, undoubtedly was Beck’s signature dish, Fagotelli “La Pergola”. The visual simplicity of this dish was deceptive as the skills required for perfecting the remarkably thin and light parcels of pasta containing carbonara sauce, garnished with specks of crunchy bacon and zucchini, was truly remarkable.
We were all impressed with Beck’s ability to refine a traditional Roman dish and transform the humble pasta into a sophisticated dish, worthy of a place in a fine dining restaurant. This dish for me was Beck’s homage to the eternal city and the cuisine he adopted as his own. My only complaint was that it was over too soon! Admittedly, the preceding dish did somewhat overshadowed the Venison in pistachio crust with chestnut puree and persimmon jam, but I did nevertheless enjoy the progression to a richer dish. The venison was cooked perfectly pink and the chestnut puree added a smoky and earthy flavour to the sweet pistachio, topped off with a thick jus. You could just about pick up the sweetness from the persimmon jam although it was a very delicate component to this rich dish.
As Beck’s cuisine was quite light for a tasting menu, we chose to indulge ourselves in the cheese course. Of particular interest was the Bitto cheese from Lombardy that was produced from whole cow milk produced only in the summer months and aged for over 10 years. It was definitely something different and resembled closest to a very matured parmesan.
On my previous meal at Aplseys, the only quibble I had were the uninspiring desserts but the Iced sphere of pomegranate on gianduia cream and cannelloni filled with salty pine-seed Chantilly was the best surprise of the night! I thought I had misheard pomegranate for cherry because the depth of sweetness from the sorbet sphere did not resemble that of any pomegranate I knew. Beck later explained that the sweet juice was extracted by delicately squeezing only the outer flesh of each seed, resulting in a concentrated sweet flavour similar but superior to that of cherry in season. It was a superb finish to a memorable meal. Obviously we thought it would be rude to turn down the lemon and lime macaron, lemon mousse on short biscuit with crunchy chocolate drop, Tiramisu cupcake and raspberry jam as they looked so pretty.
The flavours yet again were clean and fresh, and we could have easily managed another round. Luckily for us there was a final treat of hazelnut & mango ice cream to go with our espressos before partaking in the Cuban delights in their designated cigar tasting room.
I can honestly put my hands up and admit I have been guilty of overlooking classic fine dining establishments in Italy. I never thought that a bowl of pasta could be elevated to such a sophisticated level. However, I have well and truly been proven wrong by Beck. Achieving such feat is no ordinary matter and we could easily overlook the tremendous amount of determination, skills and hard work that went into every dish. Having had tasting menu’s in countless fine dining restaurants, I could also appreciate Beck’s extra attention to detail to his dishes, ensuring his diners have a light and healthy meal whilst delivering high notes on the all-important flavours.