Rome. Again? Well of course. For many the Eternal City is the centre of the universe. Talk to those who come here to live and they say magical (they also say eternally frustrating – try and get an internet connection in your home and it seems it can take forever). But Rome is historic buildings and monuments, and food. It has the only Michelin three-star restaurant in a major Italian luxury hotel, namely La Pergola, atop the Rome Cavalieri – Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts. First night in town, the gal had to experience it. See this starter, a warm emincé of tuna on a tomato paste, with edible flowers and two ‘wings’ of black olive.
The chef, Heinz Beck, is actually German but he has lived in Italy so long he feels it is home. Before he got his first star he called himself Enrico, but that did not last long. I first met him at Le Touessrok, when he was guest-cheffing. Then-hotel boss Michael Luible had taken me out on a boat. Back in the resort’s Ocean View suite 256, I found the bathtub filled, with flowers on top, and shortly after (I was by now fully clothed) Heinz Beck arrived to cook a special dinner on my terrace. Today Heinz Beck is one of the best-known and most-respected culinarians in Europe – he also supervises restaurants at The Lanesborough, London, and at the Conrad Algarve, and a couple of others, but here in Rome he is actually cooking over 200 nights a year, supervising his 25-strong kitchen brigade.
His signature dish is probably Fagottelli la Pergola, which, being translated, is triangular ravioli filled with carbonara sauce. You must eat each triangle in one bite, otherwise the scrumptious sauce may ooze down your Ermenegildo Zegna tie.. But there are so many signature memories of dining here. Even before the winelist arrives you are presented with a water menu that offers a PhD in mineral waters. There are sections on highly-mineralised waters and oligonomineral waters, some with 50-500 mg/l total dissolved solids, such as Perrier. We choose Umbria, a mineralized water with total dissolved solids 988 mg/l with manganese and sulphates, to help digestion and purifying functions. We also are given Umbrian olive oil, San Valgentino, and a trolley offers a choice of salts, including pink Australian and dark-smoked Norwegian. We are brought amuse, bites of coffee-marinated beef fillet, with edible flowers, on top of a clear glass coffin filled with river stones. Memorable? Certainly!
The table settings are memorable, too. Remember this restaurant is on the top, ninth, floor of the hotel, with a terrace looking far down over pine trees to the Vatican and Rome itself. The tables somehow blend with the view, with taupe, green and white colours. At first you have three white china pots holding white and green flowers, and nightlights in clear glass. Your cutlery and display plate are gold. At the end of the main course, nightlights are joined by green Murano glass beads, in a glass tub, holding tall lighted candles. You now have clear Murano, with inset green bubbles, in the form of a new show plate, and holder for a new napkin, which now has a green outer rim. Cutlery is now green and silver Christofle.
At this stage you might well have cheeses. Every single one of the 25 morning-suited servers (for a maximum 65 diners) acts as if in a ballet, gliding around and never getting in each other’s way. One had handled the bread trolley as if he were Nureyev – some of whose ballet jackets are displayed in elevator lobbies, but that is another story. Another server wheels up the cheese trolley and knows each cheese’s name and history. But we go on to dessert, including raspberries 11 ways, and an apricot jelly served with bergamot icecream and more edible flowers. There is a whole industry somewhere of gardeners producing edible flowers for this restaurant alone. Heinz Beck, by the way, is one of the leaders of the Italian movement that believes that slow food is not enough per se: food must be good for you. As well as his standard, and special, cookbooks (Heinz Beck, 2001, is now over $110 on Amazon), he produces culinary manuals specifically aimed at those who need to be careful, for fear of diabetes, heart disease or obesity – all these are non-profit, purely for philanthropy.
This meal is certainly feeling good for us. The maitre d’, Simone, who is in effect the ballet master, comes round to us, as to every table, to thank us for coming. It is such an honour. He has ongoing surprises. Another of his team wheels up yet another trolley, with bronze pots holding no, not edible flowers, but lots of herbs, including limoncello and mint. Wearing white gloves, he cuts sprigs which he puts into an antique pot. Pour in boiling water from an antique kettle. Since the herbs are fresh not dried, they need seven to nine minutes to steep. Serve, as an infusion, a digestif to help with that purification that the water has supposedly already started (whether or not this was helped by tastings of Guilio Ferrari Riserva de Fondarone 2001, Lageder Apollonia 2009, Banfi Brunello di Montalcino 2007 and Bibi Graetz Testamatta 2004 is debatable).
Rome Cavalieri celebrates its 50th anniversary this year – Heinz Beck helped with its birthday party in June, when 480 of Italy’s Greatest partied around the two outside pools (this hotel has everything, including an indoor pool, a sculpture walk, tennis and, inside, over a thousand incredibly valuable art works). It also has a sense of fun. The elevator cabins have screens showing long-loop videos of fish and underwater things that actually look, well, like something else. Take one of the eighth floor duplex suites, say the Planetarium Suite (number 801) and 23 yacht-like steps lead up, through a non-proverbial glass ceiling, to a private terrace with a massive hot tub, space for a cocktail for at least 25, and that view.
Suites give access to the seventh floor Imperial Club lounge, which is a typical lounge but with antiques that you know are priceless. Back down in the main lobby, no price is put on hanging tapestries, but you do know that three Tiepolos, fortunately behind glass, are worth over eight million (US). Apparently Silvio Berlusconi likes being photographed in front of them. Tourists who have done their homework like having afternoon tea in front of them. The conductor of this whole 460-room hotel, Serge Ethuin, is always thinking up experiences for people staying here.. he reminds me that the sofa in suite 801 is one of six that the hotel’s owners bought from Karl Lagerfeld’s apartment in Paris. Each is long enough for six fashionistas, though not sumos, to sit side by side.
Serge Ethuin has personal concierges to organise individual stays, bespoke travel to Rome planned and supervised by the luxury hotel. Book a suite – following Girlahead’s advice – and you are picked up from the airport in a gleaming Rolls Royce, with the hotel’s compliments. As I leave, I note how the car’s bonnet reflects the hotel’s exterior, with its floors of balconies interspersed with terracotta tile decoration.