This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Italy has many luxurious restaurants, but none as unapologetically opulent as Rome’s La Pergola. Sitting atop the Rome Cavalieri hotel, the three Michelin star restaurant has been run by German chef Heinz Beck, maître d’ Simone Pinoli and sommelier Marco Reitano for 23 years.
Diners wait in the hotel lobby for the lift to the top floor, in the company of artworks including Bertel Thorvaldsen’s famed neoclassical bronze statue Shepherd Boy with his Dog, Andy Warhol’s Dollar Sign series and a triptych by Rococo master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (currently on loan to a private museum in Milan). I’d always dreamed of finding out what luxuries await upstairs – then, one day, I got invited for lunch.
After two decades in the business, maître d’ Pinoli and sommelier Reitano have a knack for reading their clients and putting them at ease. Just one way they make you feel special is by providing your own personalised napkin – that is, if they really like you. “Each client is treated with the exact same dedication,” Pinoli said. “However, we reserve special attention for our regular customers and the ones we are especially fond of.”
The coveted napkins are hand-embroidered with clients’ initials in gold thread, and kept in a special wooden chest of drawers for years to come. They’re so exclusive that some diners even offer money to get their hands on them. “That’s the worst thing you could do to try and get one,” said Pinoli.
Marco Reitano (sommelier) and Simone Pinoli (maître).
Napkins aside, the whole dining experience at La Pergola is, quite frankly, insane.
“I’ll leave the water list here, sir,” Pinoli said after I was seated. Trying to look unfazed, I gave him a nod as if he’d just handed to me the wine list. When I took a glance, it had 55 (Fifty Five) different types of water on it. The list featured Chateldon, King Louis XIV of France’s favourite water, Magma, a naturally bubbly water from below the earth’s crust, and Svalbardi, a water extracted from actual icebergs after being frozen for over 40,000 years.
Picking fancy water is hard – if you’re as inexperienced as me, at least – so I went for the one with the most fascinating backstory: Magma. My bubbly volcano water was served in a glamorous black bottle at the end of the meal, to help with digestion. It was, without a doubt, the best water I have ever drunk in my life.
Of course, the food was delicious too. The highlight of the lunch was one of the restaurant’s specialities, blended foie gras with red berries, a bright pink and extra-bougie version of the luxurious French classic.
Before writing this piece, I’d heard wild stories about La Pergola while researching another article. When Sommelier Marco Reitano told me that one of his waiters once dressed up as a gladiator to entertain a child, I realised you can pretty much ask for anything there.
For instance, you might need a last-minute blazer to wear at dinner, since you’re required to wear one to be served. The staff keep single-breasted, navy blue blazers in sizes 42 to 64 just in case, and have them carefully dry-cleaned after each use. They also have reading glasses on hand, but since the pandemic hit they can’t hand them out. Instead, they offer a specialised reading lamp that apparently makes letters on a page appear more defined.
In a bid to keep things as classy as possible in the age of ugly face masks and social distancing, the restaurant had to rethink some of its services. “We’ve worked things out so we can keep 95 percent of the experience at top level,” Pinoli said. The restaurant’s menu is personal and can be taken home; the wine list is digital, but if you want to have a look at the real thing they’ll happily provide you with gloves.
The sommelier is always available to “really guide guests in their choice”, according to Pinoli – which is handy, considering the wine menu has 3,500 options. In fact, there are two wine lists, one for Italian wines and one for international wines, both including bottles you won’t find in any other restaurant.
But the beverage extravaganza doesn’t stop there. At the end of your meal, you’re ushered to the Cigar Room and presented with a selection of precious cigars and 15 types of tea and coffee, amid sumptuous sofas and original artworks. “In the past, we used to serve a lot more cigars,” Pinoli said, adding that the ritual is not as popular today. “We try to adapt. We have a cocktail bar that follows the latest trends,” he said.
If you opt for a herbal infusion, your waiter will usher in a trolley with fresh plants and flowers, cut them on the spot and infuse them in a dedicated metal container called a samovar, formerly owned by Tzar Alexander I of Russia. “To make the experience even more dramatic, the tea is then transferred to a small glass jug containing liquid nitrogen,” Pinoli said. “The infusion is then personalised with essential oils chosen by the client.”
The coffee service is similarly spectacular, with a selection of beans from mysterious corners of the planet going for €14 a cup. One type from Mount Everest, for instance, is one of the only coffee beans to be naturally produced above the Tropic of Cancer. Then there’s the Kopi Luwak – the rarest coffee in the world, with less than 500kg roasted yearly – whose beans are eaten and then expelled by Asian palm civets. Apparently it takes a tiny mammal’s poo to make coffee taste delicious. This product is now widely condemned by environmentalists, as the civets are often caged in harsh conditions, even when the coffee is labelled as being produced by “wild civets”.
Last but not least, La Pergola is also available for lavish private parties and events (in non-pandemic times). “A while back, a very important Russian client wanted to celebrate his wife’s birthday with us, and rented out the whole restaurant [for €35,000],” Pinoli said.
The guy was a big fan of Sanremo – an Italian song contest held every year since 1951 – and specifically of 1980s Sanremo songs. So Pinoli found him a band that could play any song he requested from that time. “He knew them all by heart,” he said. “He was happy as a child.” At midnight, a waitress asked the birthday girl to count to three. “One, two, three,” she said. Then BOOM – the party was treated to a personal fireworks display, with Rome as the backdrop.