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Sep 20, 2009 08:58 AM

Going a la carte at La Pergola?

My wife and I are going to La Pergola for our splurge honeymoon meal in Rome, and I have been keeping a close eye on the menu. Apparently it changes each month, which is lovely. Having said that, I thought the 9-course "Gourmet Menu" (tasting menu) looked better in previous months than this one. So, I have a few questions:

1. When going a la carte (three courses, plus perhaps a cheese and dessert course), are the courses any larger? I am dying to try the signature dish, Fagottelli "La Pergola", which on the tasting menu seems to consist of about six pieces of pasta at the center of the plate. Great for a 9-course extravaganza, but a little less great for a 3 - 5 course meal.

2. Neither the fagottelli or the Veal Tail "La Pergola" are on this month's tasting menu, which is why I'm considering going a la carte in the first place. I was wondering if the tasting menu could be customized at all? Could I switch out one of the nine courses for the fagottelli and another, perhaps, for the veal tail?

3. The mystery of the "Grand Dessert". This is a course I MUST have, ha ha. I know it can be purchased a la carte, but I'm wondering what the price is? The cheese course is included as a tasting menu course (25 euros a la carte) as is the Grand Dessert. Nowhere on the menu is the Grand Dessert listed outside of the tasting menu, so I'm curious about its cost.

Thank you for any help and advice.

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  1. I think à la carte is almost always a good idea, and yes, the portions are usually larger. However it is almost always possible to substitute things on tasting menus as long as (a) your request doesn’t screw up the timing and synchronizaion (main reason they ask everybody at the table to choose the tasting menu), (b) the chef doesn’t think your request is really, really incompatible with his carefully thought-out sequence. If you put it in terms like "I am very tempted by the tasting menu but I've been dying to try the tail", the waiter should be able to advise you. As for the dessert, same deal.

    14 Replies
    1. re: mbfant

      When you say "à la carte is almost always a good idea", do you mean in terms of price or that it usually results in a superior meal? Thanks.

      1. re: Sanjuro

        purely for gastronomic reasons. after years of thinking it was good to taste more t hings, I now prefer to taste fewer things better. Also often there are fascinating dishes on the menu that you miss with the tasting.

        1. re: mbfant

          maureen, I'm throwing another quick question in here, if I may. It concerns tipping. The common guidance for Americans in Italy is "Italians don't tip." Then they go into the whole thing about how workers in the service industry in Italy are paid a "living wage" so if you receive great service you may want to tip just 5%, at best.

          In the U.S., workers in the service industry get paid next to nothing and live off of tips (you know this, I'm sure, I'm just saying...). I am a habitual 20% tipper, sometimes over 20%, here in the states. However, La Pergola strikes me as a place where the "Italians don't tip" rule may not apply?

          I have contacted a few people who insist that even La Pergola falls within the same guidelines, but I would appreciate your opinion, specifically. At the moment, I am thinking of tipping 10% at La Pergola. Is this entirely wrong? Should I tip more?


          1. re: Sanjuro

            Im sure the waiters at La Pergola will appreciate the extra money but they certainly wont expect it. I think it really makes sense to fit into the local customary practices instead of looking at everything through American glasses. Some americans get angry about the Italian Pane e coperto (cover) charge, when that is simply part of the normal cost structure of meal pricing.. I actually find it unpleasant in some restaurants which see a heavy flow of foreign tourists because issues can arise around perfectly normal things such as whether the 10% service charge is included. Just go with the flow and you will make it better for all of us.

            1. re: Sanjuro

              The only time I would think of tipping any percentage in Italy is if I were utterly sure no service was included anywhere. Otherwise it is not the local way, and when in Rome, do as the Romans. Depending how long you linger, how much extra work you caused the waiters or sommelier, how large your party was -- that sort of criterion -- leave 20, 30, or even 50 euro in cash on the table. At a trattoria, just round up, or leave a fiver (which would be generous). for a normal ristorante, 5 to 20. Leave it in cash, not on your card, as a rule (not written in stone). Also, listen to Jen Kalb.

              1. re: mbfant

                Maureen, I'm surprised you even mentioned the possibility of putting a tip on a charge card. In a two week trip to Italy, I wouldn't expect to see this as an option more than once or twice. DH and I think we had this option once or twice during our recent trip. If so, we're guessing this would have occurred at more innovative places (Antico Arco) or the more expensive places (Agata y Romeo). We definitely don't recall this as an option at traditional trattorias.

              2. re: Sanjuro

                I often tell my clients that when dining in Italy or any where in Europe where a tip is not expected you can leave a tip if you feel the service was of great quality.If this is the case I would leave 10%

                1. re: Sanjuro

                  We had the extreme pleasure of dining at La Pergola last week. The bill came with no itemized service charge or coperto. I asked the maître d’ if service was included, and he said no, that it would be appreciated, and seemed surprised and grateful that an American had thought to ask.

                  As to how to add it, we were staying in the Cavalieri (also one of life's not-to-be-missed-experiences) and just added the 10% to the room charge bill.

                  The service was truly extraordinary; the best I have received. There were far more wait staff than diners present. The tables don't seem to turn--we had an 8:00 PM seating and left at 11:30 and didn't notice any turnover.

              3. re: Sanjuro

                I think it is a personal preference and also depends very much on if you know what the strengths of the chef are (theoretically or because you have eaten there before). I always prefer to get a degustation menu the first time I go to a restaurant of this class, because it is how the chef wants to present himself and hopefully the best he has at the moment. After some visits, some dishes start sticking out and I go over to putting my dinner together myself. If I remember your previous posts correctly this is going to be your first 3-michelin star experience? (Please excuse me if it is not so) Then I would definitely suggest going with the degustation menu, asking for substitutions for whatever you have set your heart on, to get the best out of this experience.

              4. re: mbfant

                Respectfully, mbfant, but I disagree with you assuming this is a first visit. Over the last thirty years I cannot tell you how many dishes I have had that were truly excellent that I might not have otherwise considered if they were not part of a tasting menu. Simply, they tasted far better than "they looked." I believe it is difficult to judge what a dish might taste like or its texture feel like until one has had it. At some restaurants, say Combal O, it is almost impossible to have any idea what a dish might be like. Consistently, I have asked waiters which dishes they might consider "if it was their last meal/if a visiting three star chef should order/if they would recommend to a close friend who had not eaten there before." I've also found this does not always work-too much depends on the values and the passion of the server. It has also been my experience that more elaborate tasting menus usually include many of the best dishes that a chef feels he is doing at the moment.

                Still, at a restaurant like Pergola, for myself, I want to sample as much as I can. I simply don't want to restrict myself to two or three dishes and an amuse or two. I want to sample the breath of the chef's talent and I believe the only way to appreciate this-on a first visit-is to sample a tasting menu. For most lesser restaurants I would agree with you-but not on this level.

                The best dining experience I've ever had was at El Raco de Can Fabes on a night when Santimaria wanted to impress a visiting two star chef from San Sebastian. Sitting at the next table I asked if we could order the same believing that this might be a truly special experience. It was. Four hours later we had no idea what some of our courses were ("soup of frog") but we were both gloriously stuffed in large part with dishes that we might not have otherwise even considered.

                I find that my trust in waiters has often not been rewarded. Perhaps on the second visit when I have a reference point and believe I know their values and taste-but not on the first. I should also add that my wife is not nearly as adventurous as I am. Yet, we've both had Great Dishes over the years that I know she would never have otherwise considered if it were not part of a tasting menu.

                For myself, if I only have one visit to a restaurant like Pergola, I want to experience as much as I can. To a point the cost is irrelevant; it is the memory that matters.

                1. re: Joe H

                  I should have noted above that I would also ask if I could substitute one or both of the dishes you mentioned on the current tasting menu.

                  1. re: Joe H

                    That's certainly a valid approach. I find, and so does my husband, that we get a very good idea of a chef's capabilities from three courses, and with seven our palates get confused. I was interested, reading the New Yorker food issue, that Michelin inspectors order one dish from each course and clean their plates -- no picking and grazing.

                    1. re: Joe H

                      I think ordering the tasting menu or a la carte depends on individuals. Our general rule is that if it is the first time at a restaurant, we tend to order the tasting menu. To get the maximum enjoyment of dining at high end restaurants, it is very important to establish a dialogue with the staff. They are not there just to take ones order, bring food and pour wine but to advice, recommend and making sure one has the best dining experience. Frequently, diners order the tasting menu as a lazy default. After years of traveling and dining, we've found that many tasting menus just offer too much food. By the end, we experience food fatigue. Also not every chef, however talented, can offer a tasting menu that has the proper balance and progression. Sometimes, there is repetition (fois gras being a common example), a powerful tasting dish followed by a dish that is very delicate, or very rich dish was served too early. It is also a fallacy in thinking that the tasting menu represents the best of what the chef does and these are the specialities. From our experiences, this is not always the case.
                      We had a most enjoyable lunch at Le Calandre this spring by ordering a la carte. We've had their tasting menus on previous visits, once their Classique and the other Ingredienti. For two of us, we had two antipasti, split an risotto, two secondi and two desserts. Since the restaurant, as most others, requires the entire table ordering the tasting menu, our tasting of 6 different plates, not including the risotto, is about the same number of courses as their tasting menus, We definitely did not come away hungry or felt that we have not sample enough of the chef's cooking.

                    2. re: mbfant

                      Please check out my review for the dinner we had over Thanksgiving the last November - I must say that unless I know I'm allergic to something (like it makes me swell up like Chairman Mao and I need to be rushed to the hospital) there is nothing I won't try - especially in a Michelin *** - concidering my 14 year old daughter did the 9 course there are no excuses.

                      "try it; you'll like it" Just be prepared to be there for a while.


                    3. We apted for the tasting menu when we ate at La Pergola few years ago and it was excellent. The primary reason was that we were not familiar with Chef Heinz Beck's cooking. Having eaten many high-end restaurants in France. Spain and to less extend in Italy (3 meals at Le Calandre , 1 at Da Pescatore, 1 at Da Vittorio), my opinion is it depends on the individual preference (some of my friends always order the tasting menu) and type of restaurant. Generally, top restaurants in Spain are better ordering their tasting menu as much of their food is better eaten in small portions; Italy is less so. My advice is not to decide until actually talking with the dining room staff about one's preferences and concerns (ie, portion size). We have never dined at a top restaurant in Europe (except for the rigid L'Ambroisie in Paris) that would not bend over backwards to substitute or please their customers. I would not be too overly concern with cost since you will be dropping a large amount of euros regardless which way you choose. As for portion size, I have never left any of these restaurants hungry. There are so many extras and freebies that a 3 course meal turns into a multi-multi course affair.

                      1. If you enjoy desserts at all, you must have the Grand Dessert, yes. And I won't spoil the surprise, except to note that the Grand Dessert itself has 4-5 courses. When they brought the first dessert course in the solid silver chest, each drawer with two petit four, we thought, Wow, this is great, and proceeded to sample almost all of them. When the next course arrived, I just loosened my belt, grinned and began one of the greatest codas to the best meal I've ever had (we had the six course tasting menu.

                        So whether you go a la carte or tasting, do include the Grand Dessert. I would try to take the advise of others and substitute the items you desire, the maître d’ was quite willing to discuss things with me and economically you would certainly come out ahead.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: niceoldguy

                          I had to take the pagoda away from my husband lol!!! We tipped as the service was exemplary and we spent the whole night there. A frequent guest was having his b-day party in a private room there and he had fireworks! What a wonderful show and it made the evening magical. The waitstaff were great when they went off as well - they stopped all service for those of us who went out on the terrace to watch and seamlessly continued when the show was over! It was a matical evening for us and was worth the cost.

                          1. re: Linda VH

                            I've read this entire post and not found any mention of what the 9-course tasting menu at La Pergola costs (leaving out wine). Can anyone enlighten me?

                            1. re: CJT

                              Nine courses cost 198 Euro; six courses cost 175 Euro.

                        2. At Il Convivio I've done the tasting menu at least 4 times in the last 8 years. I've never been disappointed. At this place I've never been disappointed whatsoever. And the wine steward has always chosen for me the right wine. You get what you pay for, and this place is quite expensive, and highly recommendable -- the best that I've had in Rome, with Agata e Romeo a close second.