Published 6 April 1997 Style Magazine 196th article
Back and forth: Pietro Fraccari, Michael Winner and Nino Sassu (Vanessa Perry)
It is rare that I am pleasantly surprised. Upset, yes. Disappointed, often. Appalled, not infrequently. To find a restaurant almost beyond criticism, practically unique. All those readers who write that I am never satisfied (they're obviously reading someone else because well over half my write-ups are positive), read on and learn. I was recommended an Italian restaurant above a pub in Notting Hill Gate by someone whose views on culinary matters I suspect. Why I even went I cannot imagine.
Assaggi is in a street of pleasant Victorian houses with a pub, nicely lit, suddenly appearing on the left. That's if you're going south; if you're going north, it's on the right! There's no sign, so I entered the pub, wooden-modern but pleasant, quickly realising this was not it. Round the side there's a door under an arch. You go up stairs covered in rough matting, bright red walls, squares screwed onto them that could be decoration or could be modern art. This leads to a large room with a wooden floor, wooden tables, no cloths, wooden chairs, no padding, three high windows looking onto the street, tables well spaced, similar squares of "art" on the walls. Rather nice.
I was greeted most warmly by the owner, Pietro Fraccari, who had served me at Cecconi. His partner Nino Sassu, the chef, also used to be at Cecconi. He served me there, too. Assaggi provides quite the most marvellous food.
I have recommended it effusively to many of my famous friends (yes, I do have famous friends!), but none of them have eaten there. This is because, when they phone up, Pietro tells them he's full! When I go back I say: "Pietro, how can you turn away so-and-so!" He just shrugs and says: "There was no room."
This is largely because there are only 10 tables and 35 seats. Pietro only takes bookings for that number. He doesn't try to fill any table twice. If someone finishes early, or someone doesn't turn up, and you phone or drop by, then you might get in at the last minute. Otherwise it is not easy.
On a recent visit I started with pane carasau, which is crisp, almost poppadom-like bread, parma ham, grilled vegetables in olive oil, then tortelloni with buffalo ricotta and a little tagliolini with sea urchins. Vanessa had brill with spinach, capers and lemon peel. My main course was prawns wrapped in pancetta. Pud for madam was figs in red wine with cinnamon and lemon peel, for me chocolate truffle cake with white chocolate ice cream. It was all historic, the cake being as good as I've ever eaten, even in Harry's Bar in Venice, which is my all-time favourite for everything.
Sometime during all this a nice young man came over and introduced himself. He was Michael Da Costa, the owner of Richoux. He'd read Vanessa's article about my trouble there so he apologised and told me the guilty party was no longer with him. Not because of me, in general.
As you know, we have these funny, taken-at-the-time photos that accompany my words of excess wisdom. Chefs love to be photographed. They are, in general, the most egocentric, bitchy, egomaniacal group I have ever met. Indeed, that's what they usually say about each other! Nino, however, went all coy. "I believe the chef should be famous just for the food," he said, demurring to stand in front of the camera. "You mean, Nino, you refuse to be photographed with me?" I asked. It appeared so. "Then what about being photographed with Pietro," I suggested. "Particularly not with him!" laughed Nino. "He drives me mad all day!"
I thought about this: I'm used to movie stars, chefs I should be able to deal with. "Tell you what, Nino," I said in a spirit of compromise, "will you stand like this" - I demonstrated - "with your back to the camera. Nobody will see your face." He thought about it and agreed. We tried two or three positions, me and Pietro facing and smiling, Nino back to camera, arms folded. It was all very jolly.
When I went in the kitchen on my way out to congratulate Nino on yet another marvellous dinner, he seemed genuinely concerned. "Mr Winner, I hope you don't mind, don't take it personally," he apologised. "My main priority is that people enjoy the food." I assured him it mattered not at all. Any man who produces chocolate truffle cake like that can hold a blanket in front of me, much I'd care. Sit down the reader who said "I wish someone would!"
Re: Boeuf stroganov (correct spelling) and your sad experience at Fortnum's. My recipe is excellent and genuine. Why not come and eat it, impeccably prepared from said recipe and accompanied by saute potatoes, never rice, at the Creggans Inn, our small hotel, where I'm told you once dined. To further elucidate: I am the widow of Fitzroy Maclean, diplomat, traveller, politician, writer and war hero, who you may possibly have heard of. He also loved making films - especially in Russia and Central Asia.
Lady Maclean, Strachur, Argyll
I frequently read the Winner column and enjoy it, too. But do we have to have his visage looking at us every week? Like him, I live in Holland Park and see him in the flesh at local restaurants. However, it gets worse. I found his face looking at me from the shelf of a shop in Barbados. It was on his Christmas card. Ego knows no bounds. I believe the shopkeeper was asking 50 cents for it.
Richard Price, London W14
Please allow Michael Winner to continue his crusade for better everything in restaurant and hotel catering. Arrogant! Pitiful! He's just a lovable old pussycat, as shown on Mrs Merton. Next time you're on the Isle of Wight, join my wife and I for dinner at our home. Please come smartly attired in faded blue jeans and open-necked shirt, with that delightful young lady on your arm.
PS Please bring the Roller. No problem with choice of table - we've only got one!
Clive Lucas, East Cowes, Isle of Wight