Salts of the earth in Rome’s most prestigious dining room

Timothy Barber
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THERE’S a popular notion about chefs and salt which posits that any cook worth his, er, salt should take umbrage if customers demand more of the stuff. You don’t expect to see world class restaurants proffering heaps of it to guests, which made a recent vist to La Pergola, the only three Michelin star venue in Rome, something of a surprise. Sitting at the top of the Rome Cavalieri hotel and ruled over by German chef Heinz Beck (he also has a star for his Apsley’s restaurant in The Lanesborough hotel here in London), La Pergola in fact has an entire salt menu for diners to peruse, with salts from around the globe including Himalayan rocksalt and volcanic salt from Hawaii. The volcanic salt was, predictably, black.

There was also yellow salt, orange salt, brown salt, every shade of white salt. To be fair, it wasn’t for sprinkling over Beck’s dainty, unbelievably precise food, but for dipping into with your bread and olive oil. That’s a superior way of doing things to the oil and balsamic combo you get everywhere these days, where the vinegar tends to demolish the inherent flavours of the olive oil. A dab of salt instead concentrates things back on the oil and indeed the bread itself – both of which were of highest quality at La Pergola, natch – giving the flavours body without snuffing them out.

The salts came arranged in perfectly symmetrical piles on a tray, the waiter spooning a tiny mound of your choice onto your olive oil dish. It was one way to inject extra ceremony into the start of the meal, but just how much extra flourish and ceremony is needed for a restaurant to make that leap from two stars to three? One wonders how far you could take it – perhaps a menu of different linens for your napkin, or 15 types of sugar to put in your tea at the end. Or a dedicated menu of myriad mineral waters imported from all over the world, from Scotland to the Pacific, with lengthy tasting notes for each and exorbitant prices to match, just to make you really feel that you’d landed in the lap of exclusivity. As it happens, La Pergola had one of those as well – a step too far for me.