ROME CAVALIERI HILTON HOTEL & LA PERGOLA RESTAURANT
The Eternal City has for centuries – and quite rightly – attracted superlatives. So let me add a few more. Rome houses one of the loveliest hotel suites in the world. And, within the same building, there is one of the finest restaurants on this planet. I know, because I have just enjoyed both. I now urge you to do the same: stay in the Petronius Suite of the Rome Cavalieri Hilton Hotel and dine at La Pergola.
The Cavalieri Hilton is perched on a hill next to the Vatican. Externally, it appears large and modern, with its straight lines softened by much greenery. I arrived late and rather agitated, having been brought from the airport at the break-neck speed so beloved of Roman taxi drivers. Once inside the huge entrance hall of the Hilton, I immediately became calm. At this hotel everything sparkles, from the multitude of objets d’art to the smiles of the staff. Within moments I was on the 8th floor, being shown around my accommodation.
And there was a great deal around which to be shown. Double rooms here can be had for 675 euros a night. I have seen them and can vouch for their excellent style and spaciousness. But this was the Petronius Suite. Its wide entrance led into a green drawing room, with a 30-light gilt chandelier. Marble columns on the left framed the entrance to the green and gold dining room. To the right were double doors to the red bedroom. (These colours were supplied by the fine silks on the walls.) A corridor led to the two loos, the dressing area and the bathroom. The last was a confection of white marble, veined with grey. Over its oval jacuzzi tub was a large television screen. Its toiletries were by Hermès.
From my four balconies, each supplied with wicker furniture, I could survey the whole sweep of Rome – with the dome of St Peter’s basilica on the extreme right.
Was all this luxury worth 5,555 euros a night? Most certainly, yes. I have stayed in many grand apartments in many grand hotels, but this belonged to that very small number I put in my ‘super-deluxe’ category – those from which I would dearly like to take home the contents. Reproduction items can be stylish and attractive, but they can never match the seductive qualities of real antiques. In the Petronius Suite I was surrounded by exquisite pieces from the 18th century: desks and writing tables in boulle (brass and tortoise-shell), pairs of cabinets in satinwood and ormolu, fauteuils in carved gilt wood, table tops in complex designs of marble, and gods and goddesses in gilded bronze. I could go on, but I will desist, in the hope that the pictures will give some idea of the sumptuous effect of so many splendid artefacts. (I found only one omission: a complete absence of any means of telling the time. I suggest four elegant clocks be installed – in the drawing room, the dining room, the bedroom and the bathroom. Thus will perfection be achieved.)
Then there were the fine oil paintings: eleven of them. They included, over the beds, a stirring depiction of the Emperor Constantine, having his vision of the Cross, before one of his battles. You will recall that his conversion to Christianity changed the history of Europe. Much later, it also meant that we who, for our sins, studied the history of the Early Church should be required to write essays to answer the question, ‘Was Constantine a Christian?’ (I think my answer was, ‘perhaps’.)
Those who stay at the Hilton in a suite (from 1,085 euros) or in an ‘Executive’ room (from 795 euros) are entitled to use the Clubroom on the 7th floor. This meant I was subject to a serious temptation: to spend the entire day there. For I found the Clubroom so comfortable and the comestibles on offer (for breakfast, tea and light supper) so delicious, that I had to speak to myself severely, in order to sally out for some light sightseeing. And my parting was made even more difficult by the kindly attentions of the staff. (I congratulate the charming, dapper and young Managing Director, Marcus-Milan Arandelovic, who clearly knows how to ensure that his hotel maintains the very highest standards of service.) Still, I did manage a tour of the gardens at the Vatican, before I scuttled back to the Clubroom for a pot of lapsang and a plate of raspberry tartlets at four o’clock. After this I undertook some rigorous exercise, by looking at the framed ballet costumes of Rudolph Nureyev, which decorate the walls.
So it was back to my gorgeous suite. As the sun faded, the bells began to ring over the rooftops of Rome, to summon the faithful to Mass. I slid open one of the plate glass doors to allow the sound to accompany my sartorial preparations for the evening. I dressed with care in items made for me in London: suit from Savile Row, shirt from Jermyn Street and shoes from the Royal Arcade. Naturally, my collar was separate, starched and stiff. Thus attired, I set off for dinner in eager anticipation.
La Pergola is on the top (the ninth) floor of the building. Its colours are restful, its chairs supremely comfortable (they are different from those shown in the photograph, and are in the manner of Art Deco), its tables widely spaced, its view over Rome delightful and the efficiency and courtesy of its staff impeccable. It is managed by the magnificent Umberto Giraudo (pictured). I first met Signor Giraudo when he was working at the Louis XV in Monte Carlo. I realized immediately that he was a fellow after my own heart – in other words, that he was a man for whom only the best would do. On this occasion, he showed me – with justifiable pride – the latest acquisition for La Pergola: a set of beautiful silver gilt table settings, made for King George III of England. They will be used for larger private parties. The then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) celebrated his 70th birthday here, but before these lovely pieces had arrived.
Umberto uses his considerable talents to ensure that everything here is of the finest. Mineral water? I consulted the water menu, and chose still water from Calabria. Salt? Trays of various coloured salts appeared. I went for ‘The Reserve of the Pope’. When the time came for tea and coffee, the variety on offer was remarkable. To call Umberto a perfectionist hardly seems adequate. And he has a marvellous team, of which I must mention Simone Pinoli, the maitre d’, and Maurizio, the head waiter.
In 2003 I wrote: ‘My advice to the good folk at La Pergola is simple: be patient. The 3rd Michelin star must come in two or three years – because the food, the wine, the service and the setting of your establishment demand it.’ In the 2006 Michelin Guide, the third star arrived. It tells the world what its fans have known for years: that La Pergola is one of the great restaurants of the world.
And the genius at its heart is an unassuming chef from Bavaria. It is something of a miracle that Heinz Beck (pictured) manages to contain so much talent in his modest frame. But there is no doubt that he is a giant in the kitchen. The precision of his technique, the subtlety of his palate and the determination with which he pursues the finest ingredients produce dishes which are a joy to behold and a wonder to eat. His is a cuisine of sheer, unadulterated enjoyment, with clear flavours, careful balance and caressing textures.
I began with carpaccio of scampi on lime gelée, with papaya, caviar and Tequila crushed ice. Delicate and delicious – although I made the mistake of eating one of the pieces of fresh lime and could not understand its bullying presence. (Later Herr Beck told me that the lime was there only for decoration, and we agreed it would be better to take it from the plate altogether.) The pasta course confronted me with sheer magnificence – fagottelli filled with carbonara sauce and freshly ground pepper. The perfection of absolute simplicity. My fish was a lesson in succulence: sea bass, filled with prawns and asparagus, with crisp lemon bread, on green tea sorbet. Next, pigeon of superb flavour and tenderness, caressed by pieces of warm orange and a mulled wine sauce. After this rather feminine dish, came the masculine tastes of deer with hazelnuts and winter roots. Then there were fine cheeses and the many delights of the ‘Grand Dessert’ (from which the chocolate soufflé particularly remains in my memory), before a miniature silver chest appeared on the table, its drawers full of petits fours. (180 euros for these seven courses.)
Such food cries out for an impressive cellar and a first class sommelier. La Pergola has both. Two wine lists are provided, an Italian and a non-Italian. From the latter, I need only tell you that its section of white burgundy includes 26 offerings of Montrachet (with the 1989 Jacques Prieur at 1,600 euros and the 1989 DRC at 3,700 euros), for you to realize its quality. Sweeps of first growth clarets also impress: Lafite from 1929, Haut Brion from 1914 and Latour from 1929. And the most famous vintages are there. You can have a magnum of 1961 Latour for 8,500 euros or a bottle of 1945 Pétrus for 6,500 euros. Then there are 43 DRC red burgudies, including the 1976 Romanée-Conti at 9,600 euros. But deep pockets are not essential, particularly for the Italian list. The excellent 2004 Planeta chardonnay from Sicily can be had for 65 euros.
Sommelier Marco Reitano (pictured) poured into the Riedel glasses (from the best ‘Sommelier’ range, of course) some lovely Italian wine. The white from the Amalfi coast was gracefully structured, with notes of sherbet and apricot (Furore Fiorduva, Marisa Cuomo, 2003 – 65 euros). Then came ripe black cherries with the luscious Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (Fattoria la Valentina, 2001 – 100 euros). With the cheese it was the aged complexity of 1959 Solaria Jonica (Ferrari – 200 euros, 50 cl.), and with the pudding the balanced sweetness of 2004 Dindarello (Maculan – 15 euros, glass).
I went back to the Petronius Suite after this meal and sat, looking out over the Eternal City. Yes, this is a place which still attracts superlatives. And, in the case of the Cavalieri Hilton Hotel and La Pergola, they could not be more richly deserved.
ROME CAVALIERI HILTON HOTEL
Via Cadiolo 101, Rome 00136, Italy.
Telephone +39 06 35091
Fax +39 06 35092 241
Double rooms from 675 euros
Ask about special offers
Telephone +39 06 35092 152
Fax +39 06 35092 165
Open for dinner only – Monday to Saturday
Closed: 1-23 January, 18-28 August
Book well in advance