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January

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2005
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La Pergola, Rome, Italy, tasted on March 19, 2004 — Wandering around Rome all day eating made us hungry... of course. We knew when we planned our trip to Italy that we wanted to get a healthy mix of tiny spots, markets, homey restaurants, and high end places. Essentially good food of all kinds. So we asked friends and strangers, did our research, and got recommendations for where to eat on our trip. One of the recommendations we got was to go visit La Pergola in Rome. And visit we did.

Somehow I screwed up and forgot to confirm the reservation, but they took us anyway which was really nice as they were pretty packed that night. Luckily we showed up early. Since they had to get us off the table a little early to make room for someone else, they offered to let us eat dessert in their lounge area... again, very flexible and nice of them to do. Unfortunately you won't see any pictures of the food we ate as they were slightly less flexible when it came to us taking pictures. That was slightly annoying, but in the end we were hungry and had come on a strong recommendation. The chef, Heinz Beck, we were told, was something special, and many people consider La Pergola the best restaurant in Rome.

Since they wouldn't let me take any pictures, I grabbed this one off their website so you could at least see the room.

This is La Pergola

Situated at the top of the Hilton hotel, the room was gorgeous. It reminded us of La Rochelle, Hiroyuki Sakai's restaurant in Tokyo. The room was filled with a rich, warm, wood. The light shone through crystals, and it wasn't too dark. On our table were some gorgeous tulips stood up in beautiful small glass "stones". The atmosphere was comfortable and we were excited for some good food.

They started us off with some snacks including long super thin bread sticks. They had a weird absence of flavor. Almost a flavor vacuum sucking anything your mouth tasted like until they left a barren landscape for the food to inhabit. I'm a fan of cleaning your palate, but I'll admit this wasn't super enjoyable. This was quickly followed by some pleasant rolls. I had sesame and wheat. The little baguette however was absolutely delicious. Especially when combined with the olive oil they gave us - Felsina Berardegna's Leccino ("leccino" is the varietal). I am a fan of middle eastern olive oils as they often have a deeper and more rustic flavor and texture. The best Italian olive oils I've tasted have been lighter, more subtle, and typically more appropriate for finishing dishes. But this oil had a richer flavor and a nice thickness on the tongue. It was delicious and especially good with the the mini-baguette which was crusty, soft on the inside, and had an enjoyable slight saltiness.

First up, was a plate with several mushroom variations. The first was a mushroom ice cream. It had a super focused frozen mushroom yumminess. It's so funny how the way we think about food affects how we taste it. Some people might freak out at mushroom ice cream. But maybe a frozen mushroom mousse? It was almost milky and nicely savory. Next up was a mushroom tart in melted cheese. It was warm and delicious. savory, crispy, juicy and cheesey. Super smooth. There was also mushroom on toast with balsamic which was fine, and the mushroom geleé was just ok. Finally they gave us a pork (or veal) medallion on a mushroom dice which was good but not special. Of the selection, the pastry and ice cream were truly memorable.

Next up was Veal Tail "La Pergola". It was covered in some of the best, freshest, chunky tomato sauce I've tasted. It was so light and surrounded by crumbly butter drenched croutons around the edge of the plate. The Emincé of Lobster with Orange Sauce and Basil was interesting as well. The lobster was pounded flat. It was soft and sweet in a surprisingly tart (in a good way) orange sauce. There were also deep fried zucchini flowers for crunch. This dish was quite good.

The next appetizer was Variation of Fish. Five different plates of seafood with a large variety. Everything was soft and subtle and perfectly cooked. Really super subtle but definitely not without flavor. The Terrine of Rabbit and Duck Liver had some truffle and was good but not special. But this was followed by Squid Ravioli with Pineapple. I'm not a big squid guy, but I had to dig in of course, and I was glad I did. Having squid as pasta was very cool especially as it was filled with a warm pineapple soup. The squid was not rubbery but rather chewy in a good way. Really the best squid I've ever had.

We moved on to first courses starting with Ricotta Tortellini with Pecorino and Broad Beans. These were cheesey perfect little noodle jewels mixed with bright green broad beans. We also had the Sweet Pepper Consommé. The soup had a perfect essence - light and concentrated at the same time. It was slightly tangy and perfectly clear. I could eat it every day. Next was Tagliolini with Scampi, Lime, and (yes again) Zucchini Flowers. (I guess they don't expect people to order basically every dish on the menu.) The dish had a slight tanginess and a savory gorgeously cooked pasta. We also had the Saffron Mousse Risotto with Scampi. It was strong and interesting though the shrimp got a little bit lost. And in a final dish, the zuchhini flower caviar was smooth and good but not very interesting. The serving of caviar was generous though.

While we had essentially come in off the street (as we had forgotten to confirm our reservation) they put on the same show for us I assume they put on for everyone. The service was a huge albeit professional spectacle. Our plates came straight from plate warmers - heaven forbid they should be room temperature when they arrived in front of us.

We weren't done yet as we had two rounds of main courses still coming our way. The Filet of Veal Poached in Vanilla Sauce with Topinambur Purée was interesting and sweet. (A topinambur is a jerusalem artichoke - thank you google.) Our baked lobster showed up with a tiny amount of actual meat. Given that this dish alone cost 80 euros this seemed pretty nutty. Eventually they came to us and told us there had been an accident and they had lost part of the lobster between the kitchen and the table. Freaky! Peyman was convinced that our first lobster tried to jump back in the ocean when he saw a window of opportunity.

In the meantime the Variation of Lamb was fantastic. We had it three ways including and confit and two rare variations. Those last two were amazing with savory juicy goodness and dripping with flavor. We also got a Whole Duck in Mustard Sauce. The duck skin had concentrated seasonings which exploded in my mouth and the braised lettuce it sat on was fantastic and crunchy. The mustard seed was great as well - Alex likened to caviar for meat. Our whole lobster finally arrived and it was good and tender with a soft lemony flavor on the surface of the meat. Though that flavor didn't last long on the tongue.

All during our meal there was a Mozart piano concerto playing on a loop. It was driving Peyman crazy. I can't say that helped his outlook on the meal, though it didn't bother the rest of us.

For our second wave of main courses we ate variations and extensions of the first round. The duck leg they gave us had an almost chocolatey flavor. They also served s the lobster claw from that poor second lobster. It had a foie gras surprise inside and also had a truffle of green cauliflower. Though interesting, the first editions of these ingredients seemed better to us. The second wave of duck was chewier than the first, and the second wave of lobster had less flavor than the first.

We retired for dessert in the foyer on some comfy seats. Alex felt that their wine choices throughout the evening had been on target. As for dessert the Ricotta Souffle was interesting but the Ricotta Flan was very good. There were also tons of chocolates, fried eggplant chips, and some sorbet that was pretty ice creamy. We also had 12 different variations of petit fours. Debbie loved the "golden tea" they served her. She thought it might be the best cup of tea she'd ever had. We were stuffed!

I can't say that La Pergola was a slam dunk. It was kind of a push and pull evening. They were gracious about us not having confirmed our reservation, but they were kind of pissed about us wanting to take pictures (yes I realize that 99.99% of customers don't want to do that). They would serve us a perfect red pepper consommé, and then a risotto that was not balanced. (Risotto and consommé are two dishes that are benchmarks - hard to make, but easy to spot perfection). The head waiter told us he was writing a book on service, but we didn't always feel comfortable. Though I did take note that someone brought a baby to eat there. I thought that was cool.

Ultimately, there is obvious talent at La Pergola. Real deep talent. And yet it showed inconsistently on the evening we were there. I would try it again though ostensibly to see if our visit was a fluke. That said, I'd be happy to go back and just have a big bowl of that perfect red pepper consommé. I can taste it now.

 

     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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