Hubert Burda Media

Greenz Meanz Heinz

We land a table at La Pergola in Rome, helmed, not by an Italian, but by a German. Ironic? No, just very healthy.

Greenz Meanz Heinz

In a country obsessed with its national cuisine, where men have known to trade blows over whose mother serves the best pasta, the biggest irony is that the only three-Michelin-starred restaurant in its capital is helmed not by an Italian, but a German.
Heinz Beck has called La Pergola home for the past 19 years. Located on the top floor of the Rome Cavalieri Hotel (a part of the Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts group) that lords over the Eternal City from its perch on the Monte Mario hill, the restaurant was again awarded top honours last November by the Michelin Guide when it was presented, for the eighth consecutive year, with three stars and five forks.
The Italians might be tempted to say the French don't know any better, but the proof is in the pudding — the reservation book is often full for weeks on end, and the international jet-set make up the very chi-chi crowd. Then there is the unparalleled service, the exquisite food and, above all, Beck himself.
The Munich native's petite size and slight stutter belie a brilliant mind and fierce passion for his job. “He's an artist,” declares my dinner partner, after going through eight courses and some — high praise indeed coming from a man dead against the glorification of chefs. But more than that, Beck is a nutritionist and a scientist. “I do not believe in following trends. I do what I think,” he emphasises. Right now, his thoughts are fixated on serving healthy food and as much as that sounds at odds with the restaurant's three-Michelin-star status, he actually does.
According to him, eating healthy is “focusing on the effects of food on your body”. A multiple course meal in a fine dining restaurant usually leaves most diners too full to move. But you'll never get that at La Pergola. Through extensive study, Beck has a firm grasp on this subject: “It's about how you combine ingredients and the way you cook them.”
Case in point: Starting off our degustation dinner is a very prettily presented raw amberjack marinated in balsamic vinegar that hugs mounds of pink pomegranate snow. Water laced with mint is then poured over dry ice hidden under the plate giving off a refreshing scent.
Beck's choice of ingredients to commence the meal is a deliberate one. “Never have an appetiser that is too rich. The pancreas will absorb all the sugars and produce insulin, which is what helps fats to deposit in the body — not a good start to the dinner and definitely not good for the heart.” Instead, the pomegranate, with its wealth of antioxidants and minerals, gets absorbed and gently prepares the body for the meal ahead instead of sending it into shock.
What follows are seven courses that are each delicate and exquisite in appearance, and, at the same time, take the palate on an expedition of flavours and textures. Like the dish simply titled Undergrowth (its plating mimics the wildlife on the forest floor). On a base of foie gras purée is artistically arranged edible soil embedded with tiny leaves and mushrooms. Bright green parsley sponge is added to imitate the small bushes and an asparagus is chopped up for added crunch.
Beck lets on that this is the third instalment of a series of nature-themed creations that he has made annually since 2010. Back then, to celebrate the Year of the Forest, he made a dish with ingredients from the woodlands. From land, he turned his attention to the sea in 2011, whipping up a miniature of our planet on a plate to represent the ocean deep. Then last year, he decided to focus on the earth, resulting in Undergrowth. For 2013, the sun will make its fiery appearance on a piece of customised crockery.
Another outstanding course is the Fagottelli La Pergola, a handmade pasta shaped like the Chinese xiao long bao but stuffed with carbonara sauce instead of pork. One bite and it literally explodes into the mouth, a heady mix of strong cheese flavours in the thick broth.
Equally memorable are the pair of melt-in-the-mouth-tender venison medallions coated with a pistachio crust and plated with chestnut purée and streaks of persimmon sauce. The richness of the meat is quickly offset by its sweet and nutty complements, making it easy to digest despite it being the seventh course.
The grand dessert claims to conclude the menu but as with all fine dining restaurants, it's not usually the case. A sphere of pomegranate ice is presented atop a base of gianduja chocolate cream and pomegranate seeds. But this is a Michelin-starred restaurant after all and they have no shortage of tricks up their long sleeves. The waiter comes along with almond cream so fragrant I can smell it the moment he starts pouring it out of the jar. A second later, the pomegranate ice crumbles under the warmth of the cream and takes on the appearance of a piece of contemporary art.
Even without Beck's input on the food, I imagine I'd be sufficiently entertained by the frills and theatrics of the service staff. There is a sommelier who solemnly presents two books (not menu, but inch-thick tomes) that contain the wine list — one for Italian and the other for foreign wines — backed by a cellar that holds 53,000 bottles. Another waiter will come around with a water menu with 29 choices from around Europe.
The bread is presented on a trolley and has one person manning it the whole evening, so every 20 minutes, he swings by and offers his spread. Pick yours and it will be warmed on a mobile heater. But that isn't the only decision I have to make. There are five types of salt to choose from, and a rather lovely olive oil (Italian, no less). Fans of cheese have an entirely trolley's worth to sample and just when I think I'm finally done, along come the petit fours and a menu of tea and liqueurs.
Strangely, as Beck promised, at the end of the meal, I don't feel as full as the idea of eight courses might sound. We still have our wits about us to realise we're in one of the greatest cities in the world, and can even get up to stroll on the terrace that wraps the restaurant to admire the night lights and how the dome of St Peter's is close enough to touch (it's not and if you think so, it's probably the wine kicking in).
And as we leave La Pergola and all its priceless antiques, paintings and artefacts, Beck is personally standing there bidding us farewell, beaming uncontrollably from ear to ear. It's very unlike the serious nature of his fellow countrymen, but after 19 years in Rome, I suppose you can say he's practically Italian.
La Pergola
Rome Cavalieri, Tel: +39 06 3509 2152; opens Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm to 11.30pm; closed from August 11 to 26