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Worth the fuss

Published 6 September 1998
Style Magazine
269th article

The Ca's the star: Francesco, Nicoletta and Melly Solari with Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)

Thanks to Sunday Times readers I'm the proud possessor of 16 different photographs showing my persona framed, glazed and displayed on a pillar in the lounge of the Hotel Splendido, Portofino. If Maurizio Saccani, the manager, has plans to remove it, he does so at his peril. Many of you kindly pictured yourselves standing by the photo and some of you included the concierge supreme, Fausto Allegri.

It was Fausto who produced hand-drawn squiggles on a small piece of paper and said: "This is where you will go to lunch, Mr Winner. Ca Peo in Leivi." Fausto has always directed me superbly. "It looks a long way," I said nervously."Forty-five minutes," replied Fausto dismissively.

An hour later we were still twirling along the Ligurian coast road with no sign of Chiavari, where we had to execute a complicated left turn into the mountains. Same the world over, I thought. Everyone exaggerates the ease of getting from one place to another. "I'm 20 minutes from central London," say people in north Hampstead. Oh yes. Sixty minutes in the rush hour, if you're lucky. The three miles from Piccadilly to my house in Holland Park can take 45 minutes an a bad day, and that's with a chauffeur picking me up on the doorstep. So I cut my journey to the office to 15 seconds, the time it takes to walk down 14 steps from bedroom to study.

Fausto had failed to draw any details of Chiavari on his artistic map, so we got lost and eventually, more by luck than judgment, found ourselves rising ever higher, through tiny villages, until we arrived at the farmhouse with its stunning view.

I always like to get to new restaurants early to sort out the table. A scholastic-looking young lady in rimmed glasses with swept-back hair, a dark suit and a white shirt appeared to be in charge. In case Fausto had not done the full monty on how unbelievably important I was, I carried with me the piece de resistance: a small pocket-sized brochure, originally produced for film festivals, on stiff shiny paper, with a fetching photo of me with my director's chair on the cover and a potted biography in French, German and Italian on the following pages. "I wonder if you could be so kind . . ." I said to Nicoletta Solari, the owner's daughter, indicating some furniture-moving would be appreciated.

"I've been all morning getting the tables in position," said Nicoletta. "Well, nothing is impossible, dear. Let's put four chairs there and two by the window there and change this table to go . . ." You'll be glad to hear all this was achieved splendidly, leaving me with a nice, large table in the main window bay, neatly laid for two.

Thus with everything shipshape Vanessa and I took a walk along the narrow village road, admired the local church, strolled back and settled to look out at the view of olive trees and old farmhouses down to Chiavari and the sea. A nice, airy room, I thought. Nicoletta had kindly given me an article from The New York Times which stated that "Franco and Melly Solari never serve fewer than 10 courses". Obviously in the three years since the article was written Melly, who does the cooking, had decided to slow down a bit. We were offered a mere eight courses for lunch.

We had Solari wine, from the vineyard 500 metres away on the hillside. A very nice, soft taste. I have a note saying "This radicchio flan, whatever it is, is absolutely sensational." It may not mean much, but it denotes pleasure. The dishes were all described in Italian: ravioli di triglia, lattughe ripiene in brodo, bianco di branzino, a sorbet, some lamb. Desserts included a historic strawberry-mousse and some sweet bread with orange and lemon in it called galopa. It was all sensationally good. Lunch took four hours and I never complained or tried to rush anyone.

"Michel Roux came here," said Nicoletta, now my new best friend. "Later he found me a house and I stayed briefly near the Waterside Inn." "This food is 100 times better than the Waterside Inn," I said bitchily, thinking as I said it: "It's 500 times better, really, but as they're friends of Roux's I'll be tactful." Then father, Francesco, who had been maitre d'ing in a grey, pinstriped suit, gave me some excellent photos of Ca Peo, his wife was dragged from the kitchen for the mandatory photograph, and off we went to enjoy Fausto's 45-minute drive back, which again took an hour and a half. Still, it was more than worth it.


I am writing to congratulate you on your fantastic performance in Winner's Dinners each week. We read your articles every week in our student house and find your descriptions of the places you eat interesting, entertaining and highly amusing. Could you send us a signed photograph so that we can hang it in pride of place?
James Sykes, Towcester, Northants

On a recent trip to Venice, we stayed at the Cipriani Hotel, whose concierge Michael Winner implied had dubious motives in his reluctance to make a reservation at the Trattoria San Marco for a fellow guest. When we asked the concierge to book a table at the same restaurant, he did so without a flicker of emotion. That night, we found ourselves in an all but empty restaurant and felt a faint shudder of gastronomic anxiety. But there on the wall was Mr Winner's photograph, so we knew we were in the right place. We had nothing to worry about. Wrong. We ordered tagliolini in tomato and basil sauce. The chef strode purposefully to the store room and returned with a packet of pasta - clearly not the home-made variety. The dish arrived soggy and tepid in a tasteless pink sauce. The wine did nothing to enhance the meal. We left puzzled and disappointed. I can understand why the concierge at the Cipriani was reluctant to endorse Mr Winner's recommendation. It seems to us that Mr Winner owes him the benefit of the doubt, if not an apology.
Dr Michael J Sinclair, London W2

"Where are you big?" asks Michael Winner in his column (Style, August 23), anticipating readers' sneers when a woman recognises him from her local paper in Pimlico. If the truth be known, I'm big in the same place as him - round the middle.
Gary Chance, London W11

In a recent interview, the broadcaster Mavis Nicholson described Llangoed Hall as her favourite hotel, referring to the "heavenly" bedrooms, "wonderful" paintings and "delicious" food. Given Michael Winner's adverse comments on the place, who are we to believe?
Peter Lardi, Hemel Hempstead, Herts