Published 24 November 1996 Style Magazine 177th article
Island life: Benvenuto Puricelli and Michael Winner
My introduction to Benvenuto Puricelli did not go smoothly. I was walking out of his restaurant, Locanda dell'Isola Comacina, when he followed me onto the terrace. This is on the only island in Lake Como, opposite the exquisite village of Sala Cornacina. It's ugly, rebuilt in 1963 like an East Grinstead roadhouse. A barn of a place divided into two. The good bit faces the lake, the back bit faces the front bit.
When we arrived from Bellagio on our rented speedboat we saw the dreaded Villa d'Este tourist boat moored. We had seen it leave in the morning full of d'Este-ites, who waved and smiled up at Vanessa at the balcony window of our suite. As well they might. She was stark naked at the time. There they were again, now inhabiting the front room of the Locanda. I surveyed the table offered in the back, turned and did the Winner-walk-out. Benvenuto took it well. "I'll lay a table up on the terrace for you," he suggested. I considered the matter. The terrace was far the best place to be. A lovely view of the lake, but was it warm enough? It was early October and . . . "Early October?!" I hear you say. "That's weeks ago!" Correct, it is not necessary for you to to be told the second anything happens to me. I make little notes as I travel through life, write them up into literary gems and then put them in a drawer. Later I open it and make a choice. "Eeny-meeny-miny-moe . . ." This week out popped Benvenuto and his island.
The sun came out so I decided to stay. There is a set menu, unchanged since 1948. They do exactly the same for lunch and dinner every day. Weddings, receptions . . . all get the same menu. "Suits me," I said to Vanessa. "They must have got it right by now." That was an understatement. It was superb plus.
First you get seven dishes of veg and fruit as hors d'oeuvre plus some incredible bresaola and ham. The baked onions were memorable. The ham is fragrant, cooked, baked and slightly smoked. Benvenuto puts olive oil and lemon on the bresaola. The white wine was Soave 1985 Paesaggi. Very pleasant. Then you get salmon trout, fresh as anything, delicious. Benvenuto scoops rough salt from a dish, flicking it out with a spoon, then he pours lemon, olive oil and pepper over the fish. "Can I have a knife?" I asked. "You have the bread," ordered Benvenuto. So I scooped up the sauce with the bread and he was quite right. He's a tall, thin man, wearing a tartan waistcoat, black trousers, a white shirt. He worked in the Penthouse Club in London and in Chigwell, Essex, and the Palace in St Moritz.
The fried chicken that followed was brilliant, with a lettuce salad delightfully flavoured with some dressing or other. There's a technical description for you! Then he produces this enormous parmesan and cuts a bit off. After that, ice cream with pears and banana liqueur. At this point, I was satisfied and ready to go.
"You wait for my fire act," said Benvenuto. That sounded a load of non-fun. "When is it?" I asked. "In 15 minutes," he said. "Make it five and I'll stay." I replied. So Ben went into the interior room, clearly visible through the plate-glass windows. There he put on a bobble hat of striped green, yellow, white, red and blue. A large number of glasses were laid out in front of him. He delivered a history of the island in an undulating Italian, at the same time pouring sugar from a great height into the glasses and then setting something on fire, flames leaping up all over the place. Vanessa said it sounded like a horse-race commentary. When he finished, a waiter standing beside him started clapping, so we all knew what to do. "Which horse won?" asked Vanessa. Benvenuto made his way out, rightly ignoring the d'Este travel group and handed us his "product", coffee with brandy and sugar. I think Ben has a terrific idea. I'm fed up with seeing enormous menus none of which I understand. I'm bored to death with waiting while everyone orders, then changes their mind and orders again. I hugely like the idea of each restaurant perfecting its own menu and serving nothing else. Then we could all move from place to place depending on what we feel like at the time. I doubt it will catch on. People like to delude themselves they are capable of choosing correctly. They aren't and they're exceptionally tedious as they try.
While in a local restaurant, where we waited some considerable time for service, a friend mentioned Michael Winner's idea for getting service - the old "waving-the-napkin" routine, and how most Englishmen were too reticent to do it. I immediately decided that I was not, and began to wave my napkin in a furious fashion. Lo and behold, Mr Winner, it works. The waiter immediately and wordlessly came over - and gave me a new napkin!
C Caudwell, Wainfleet, Lincs.
It isn't only in schools that children need controlling - it seems their noisy presence is polluting a lot of good hotels and restaurants, with the acquiescence of seemingly badly trained or helpless staff. Can you, Mr Winner, save us from the willingness of such staff to turn their establishments into nurseries or creches? In the last month, I have suffered the following experiences. At Sunlaws House Hotel, Roxburghshire, at 8pm a woman came in with a be-rompered baby on her hip, sucking from its hot milk bottle. They joined us in the candle-lit dining room, where the baby was placed in a high chair. The parents rushed around the table putting morsels from their own plates into its mouth until it was clear he had done what well fed babies do, and had to be taken away to be changed. The baby merrily grabbed a handful of a nearby diners' hair as he exited the dining room. There was no comment from the management, despite my verbal and written requests for one. At Zafferano's, Lowndes Street SW1, four adults arrived at 8pm with a four-year-old in tow. Three waiters leapt to find a chair and cushions to perch him on so that he might reach the table. Other diners, meanwhile, were ignored. Once on top of the cushions, the child put his head on the table and fell fast asleep. Despite frequent proddings from his father he woke only to wail he didn't want food. They were still attempting to prod him from sleep at 9.40pm when we left. At the cocktail bar of the Lygon Arms, Broadway, Hereford & Worcester, four adults and three children aged four and five entered at 7pm. The infants immediately started to give a performance of nursery rhymes at the sort of shrieking pitch only children can reach. They were clapped and cheered by the accompanying adults, and responded with increased efforts. The head barman said he could do nothing. We decided against having dinner lest we catch the second half of this performance in the dining room. Are hoteliers and restaurateurs going mad, or am I? There are surely enough suitable places for small children to eat without including first-class hotel cocktail bars, or quality restaurants at night? A proper training programme is required to ensure staff know how to deal with what is simply a management problem - keeping noisy or intrusive children and their parents where they won't disturb others.
Mary Portman London SW1.
I was surprised by the letter from Mr Binns of Altrincham (November 10) complaining about the lack of flavour in Loch Fyne Oyster's seafood fayre. I travel past the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar several times a year en route to Mull and always make a point of stopping for a meal. Smoked or not smoked, I have always found their seafood to be abundant in flavour. I met a restaurateur in New York this year who told me that he sold Loch Fyne Oyster's smoked salmon in his Manhattan restaurant because it was the tastiest he could find. When I eat clams and mussels I want to taste the sea - can I suggest that if Mr Binns wants the lasting taste of garlic butter on his seafood he might try the supermarket's boil-in-the-bag variety, which comes smothered in the stuff? I generally find that these sauces are used to hide the delicate flavour of old docks.
William Miller London SE5.