What It's Like to Dine at Rome's Only Three-Michelin-Star Restaurant

Rome Cavalieri's La Pergola boasts sweeping views of the Eternal City, a museum's worth of art, and a water menu that made me believe in water menus.

La Pergola rome
Photo: Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel

A third-generation Italian with many relatives abroad, I've visited Italy my whole life, flying in and out of Rome Fiumicino more times than a diplomat. While I wouldn't dare say that I'm a Rome expert — because an Italian person would emerge to quiz me or tell me I'm wrong — I've collected my haunts: There's my favorite gelato place (Gelateria Della Palma), my favorite trattoria (La Taverna Dei Quaranta), my favorite place to drink wine while eating meats (Roscioli), and so many more spots I'd never share publicly and risk ruining.

So, on a recent pecorino-fueled retreat to the Eternal City, I decided to branch out in a big way, dining somewhere outside of my familiar Roman routine: La Pergola, the only restaurant in Rome to hold three Michelin stars. The fine-dining institution — which Food & Wine once declared "worthy of a pilgrimage" — is considered to be chef Heinz Beck's masterpiece.

Whenever I'm in Italy, I'm obsessive about finding the trattorias, osterias, and enotecas frequented by locals (though this is sometimes difficult in Rome), and I generally eschew Italian fine dining in favor of hyper-local pasta shapes served in hyper-local sauces that, a few kilometers over, are unrecognizable.

Located at the top of Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria Resort on the ninth floor, peering over sweeping, movie-set-like views of Rome, La Pergola would be something different; it offers one of the most extravagant tasting menus you can find in Italy, a nation built on trattorias. As I sipped an exquisite pre-dinner negroni at the restaurant's chic bar, I marveled at the glowy panorama of the Rome that I knew so well, but not like this.

Before my journey to the top of the Rome Cavalieri for dinner, I lingered in the lobby, one of the city's best-kept secrets for line-free art. The Tiepolo Lounge is essentially a gallery of fine Venetian masterpieces, with millions of dollars worth of pieces from artists including Francesco del Cairo, Jan van Orley, and, most notably, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. I was pleased to find that, on floor nine, La Pergola continues this artistic sensibility — and, if you dine there, you, too, should plan on getting to Cavalieri early to admire the Tiepolos and the massive early 18th-century tapestry depicting the triumph of Mars by Van Orley.

At the restaurant, the casual abundance of rare artifacts — including 18th-century candelabras and hand-blown glass by Emile Galléa — and the view of the cityscape rivaled only by private helicopters enlivens an already shiny dining experience. Beck brings an artistic sensibility and French precision to Italian gastronomic traditions, melding avant-garde technique with the regional products that make Italian food sing: Umbrian truffles, onion jam from Tropea, radicchio from Treviso, vintage balsamic vinegars, and a cart of Lazio's best cheeses when the meal dances toward dessert.

The 12-page water menu — yes, water menu — delighted even the most hardened skeptic (me) as I read through the various categories, organized by "listed according to the total dissolved solids"; "sources in Italy"; "foreign sources"; "truly special"; and "last but not least the most luxurious bottles," all with vivid descriptions of effervescence and minerality levels.

As you might guess, the restaurant approaches wine with similar rigor and creativity. The 2,500-label wine list features some of the world's rarest and most expensive wines; La Pergola's wine cellar underneath the hotel is legendary for its 70,000-plus bottles worth millions of dollars, including 19th century and cult wines unfindable elsewhere.

And then there's the food. The menu honors Italian regionality while offering a global point of view, down to each grain of salt. During bread service, a server offered a tray of colorful salts from around the world — when I dined, there were six, including Alaea salt from Hawaii and a smoky, yellowish one from Norway. They all added something special to the housemade breads, my favorites being the pillowy focaccia and crusty rolls just like you'd find at your favorite panificio.

The "Gourmet Menu" is a 10-course tasting menu that costs €320; steep, yes, but somewhat of a value when you notice that entrées hover around €70 — a seven-course option is also available from €270. Indeed, La Pergola is a special occasion-type place for birthdays, anniversaries, proposals, and businessmen who gather just because they can. When dining there in April, I brought my mother, whose father (my grandfather) was born and raised in the Lazio region before emigrating to America at 19.

By the end of the meal, any resistance we'd harbored to the notion of haute Italian cooking had vanished, as we were seduced by Beck's sharply conceived and executed vision. The plating, while complicated, was welcoming and fun; the ingredients, while expensive, were familiar and delicious, always gesturing at the rustic Italian meals we'd grown up loving. After all, fresh pasta is fresh pasta is fresh pasta, and Beck does it right. Our delicate tortelli, laced with thick black truffle and curls of dainty microgreens, channeled the spirit of a centuries-old Bologna trattoria.

The Michelin Guide first awarded La Pergola three stars in 2005, making the restaurant Rome's first three-star restaurant. Since then, Italian fine dining has gained more international renown, namely with Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Modena topping just about every global "best of" list. Yet La Pergola has endured and evolved, remaining singular and necessary in Rome's growing restaurant scene.

Beck's signature dish is Fagotelli "La Pergola," its name a nod to the Italian tradition of generating dishes in the style of the trattoria where it's served. Silky pasta envelops creamy carbonara sauce, forming luscious parcels that are garnished with crunchy bits of pancetta and zucchini: a sophisticated yet satisfying take on the iconic Roman dish that achieves a mighty feat — riffing on carbonara without ruining it.

The chef has called the pasta "an explosion of warm, rich flavor," and said his intention "is to transmit emotions through harmoniously balanced aromas, flavors, and colors — sensory stimuli which are intertwined and blended in suffused and refined surroundings."

Emotional fine dining, I hope, is here to stay.

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