Published 6 October 1996 Style Magazine 170th article
Get off my back: Vanessa Perry and Carlo Lazzeri mind the gap at the Hotel Splendido (Arnold Crust)
There was drama on the terraced restaurant of the Hotel Splendido, Portofino. It will not surprise you that I was involved. Until then things had gone well. Fausto Allegri, concierge historic, acquired a convertible car for me when all attempts by a posh travel agency in London produced none. Fausto provided a chauffeur car to pick us up from the private jet at Genoa, 40 minutes away. Unlike Abdelkrim Temsamani, the charming but erratic concierge of La Mamounia, Marrakesh, it arrived at the right place at the right time. I had an excellent suite with a terrace overlooking the historic view, unlike my last visit when I was put in something odd. There was time to relax by the pool, where I met my old friend the writer Andrew Sinclair, with his lovely wife, Lady Sonia, there because they had read of the Splendido on this page. They had just been stuck in the new lift!
Then dinner overlooking the beautiful little harbour of Portofino. a hill, a castle and all things nice. I was not greeted by the maitre d', marvellous Giorgio Tognazzi. A nice young man, Carlo Lazzeri, had taken over when Giorgio retired. I was shown to a good table by the balcony. Then I realised something was dreadfully wrong. "Ask Mr Lazzeri to join me," I said to one of the staff. "Is everything all right, Mr Winner?" asked the waiter, nervously. "It most certainly is not," I replied. Signor Lazzeri scurried over. Before I could let him have it, Giorgio Tognazzi, dressed casually, arrived. He had come from retirement to greet me. With him was Maurizio Saccani, the superb manager of the Splendido.
After a few pleasantries, all three of them knew of my displeasure. "These tables are far too close together," l announced. "Last year, guests sat opposite each other, able to look adoringly into their partners' eyes. Now, to cram more people in, you have one person sitting facing out to the view, the other on their right side facing the back of someone at the next table." They tried to laugh it off. "Tell me, Mr Saccani, how much do I have to tip Carlo to get these tables moved further apart?" Silence. "I shall measure the distance between this table and that chair," I announced. Vanessa held a plate from table to chairback. Later measured, it was 5½in! "Whatever you do," I said to Carlo, "put Italians either side of me. I do not wish to be involved in English conversation." Mr Saccani came back, worried. "It was the lawyer's birthday," he explained. "We had to put an extra table in." When I told the new maitre d', Carlo, the distance was only that of the small plate, he whispered: "This is just between you and I, isn't it?" "Yes, and 4m readers of The Sunday Times," I said, getting up to go.
The next day, Mr Saccani brought the matter up again. "You see, Mr Winner," he explained, "we have a lot of repeat guests, they all want to sit by the balcony. If I placed you in the second row you would not like it." "Mr Saccani," I said patiently, "if the tables go back so guests can see each other instead of the back of the person at the next table, I would not mind at all if you asked me, during a five-day visit, to take two nights in the second row." "I can't ask all the guests that, can I?" said Maurizio. I had to agree he could not. I returned to the terrace, tables now better spaced out. "Carlo," I called, "come along, we are going to measure." Carlo took it well. He held one end of my tape. Vanessa the other. My table to the chair in front was now 27in. But the table facing my back was only 17in. The conﬁguration stayed the "new" way.
Other than that, the Splendido remains as near a perfect hotel as you could ask for. A young man from St John's Wood (not my favourite area) appeared on the balcony next to mine and told me he thought the food was a problem. I know that Willesden (as in "I'm only a poor boy from") is supposedly infra dig to St John's W, but I consider the Splendido food more than excellent. Every meal was terrific. Ravioli with vegetables, fried scampi and fried squid, Grand Marnier souffle, homemade black noodles with seafood and fresh tomato sauce, baked fillets of sea bass with pine nuts and black olives . . . all delicious. Service exemplary, everyone cheerful. The area unspoilt. A narrow coastal road, lovely bays, and around the hotel lounges wonderful old photos of stars who really were. Marissa, in the boutique, even has three photos of me up! She claims English people are impressed.
Mr Saccani came to me the next day by the pool, almost in awe. "See that gentleman," he said, "he's a very important Italian industrialist. He said to me, 'That's Michael Winner of Winner's Dinners.' " I tried to look modest, believe me, not easy. "Could we have a photo of you for our lobby?" asked Mr Saccani. Now there's a hotel with taste. I shall return again and again. To stand by my picture.
Recently I took three friends to the Collection. Unlike Mr Winner (Restaurant Watch, September 29), we found both the food and service to be excellent. As to the noise, perhaps Mr Winner's hearing aid was turned up too loud, for although crowded, we conversed with ease. Michael Winner's "Do you know who I am?" is a presumptuous question to someone not of his generation, but the answer might have been: "I was a director of puerile films now long forgotten that were so lambasted by critics, I decided to avenge them by joining their ranks." Piqued by not being invited to the Collection's opening, Michael Winner is obviously exacting childish revenge.
Pete Bellotte, Northchapel, West Sussex