Published 10 January 1999 Style Magazine 287th article
No small matter: 'Mr Puny', Luigi Miroli and Michael Winner in Portofino
"I think you could help us, Mr Winner," said Maurizio Saccani, manager supreme of the hotel Splendido in Portofino. "We need more going on here out of season. I think we should have a film festival." "That could be difficult, Maurizio," I said. "Particularly as you don't have a cinema." "There's one in Santa Margherita," said Mr S, pushing aside such a minor matter. I felt this was not an area I wanted to get in to. "I wish we could get Puny to stay open," mused Mr Saccani, now in his own imaginary Portofino Winter Wonderland.
The problem with most lovely places is that they are vastly overcrowded in the high season - June through August. To see Venice without hordes of tourists thronging the streets you have to go between November and March. My friend Arrigo, owner of Harry's Bar, thinks February is the best month. So consider booking. I went in 1974 for Christmas. It was totally magical. Two years later it was already becoming popular at that time.
The Splendido closed on Monday; it reopens on March 26. Puny - there's a name to conjure with in Liguria - closes his superb harbour restaurant from early December to mid February. Luigi Miroli (aka Puny) is a key player in Portofino. Mr Big. Vastly energised. When all the restaurants and shops shut down on strike one Saturday last summer in protest against the government declaring the coast a preservation area, it was Puny I saw leading a crisis debate with his group in the almost deserted village square. He broke off to greet me, then returned to the fray.
It's an interesting battle and one with the outcome still in doubt. The Ligurian coast is one of the most unspoilt in the world. But I've noticed an increase in enormous private yachts dwarfing Portofino's little multicoloured houses. Even worse are the cruise ships anchored just out to sea, spilling hordes of tourists into the tiny town and even breaching the Splendido for itinerary events. It's a nightmare. The effluence and pollution from the ships is horrendous, the sight of them ghastly. To see these billionaires sitting, high up on their decks, drinking cocktails and looking down on us peasants is enough for a rerun of the French revolution. Personally, I'd shoot the lot of them, drag their horrid ships out to see [sic] and burn them at night. That would look pretty. Although I'm not sure this is official Italian Green Party policy.
The shopkeepers and restaurateurs of Portofino hold another view and their protest forced a delay in the enforcement of the government's edict to preserve the beauty and dignity of Portofino and the surrounding area. I suppose natural beauty is irrelevant if it hits you too hard in the pocket.
Puny's restaurant is set back from the waterside. It's generally considered to offer the best food in Portofino. I agree with that, although I've had delicious meals at nearby Delfino and Lo Stella, both right on the waterfront. From the front tables Puny you get a great view of the cobbled square, the boats, the bay and the hill with a large pino marittimo growing out of the castle courtyard on top.
When I first went to Puny five years ago, I was greeted as "from the Splendido". I hate being a hotel ambassador. It speedily changed to, "Ah, Mr Winner!" We had some terrific sea bass in salt. There was so much salt over the fish and the baked potatoes that the waiter bashed it, everything rattled and Puny came to save the day. It tasted memorably good. On another visit I had sea bass with bay leaves and black olives from Genoa. There's a romantic guitarist wandering about singing I Found My Love in Portofino. Not one of the most melodious ballads I've ever heard. I made a note on my tape that "Puny wins the award for the best flower display in the toilet."
He also does terrific pasta. His pappardelle with basil and tomato is an old recipe from Genoa; his gnocchi with shrimp sauce and green peas is totally historic. Portofino is an experience at any time of year, Puny is its senior food server. But I shall be absolutely furious if he wins his battle with the government and lets those dreadful monster boats and monster people roam freely over one of the last great preserved - not full of high-rise - areas in Europe.
I'd even be prepared to pay three times as much for my pasta. Come to think of it, I can't see why Puny cares: his place has always been totally full when I've been there. Perhaps the billionaire yacht people are bigger spenders? Shoot-'em anyway, I say.
My heart went out to Michael Winner when I read there were only 24 other diners in his section of Sheekey's (Style, January 3). Is it that the great man doesn't like small rooms? Or is it that he prefers to have a larger audience when he eats in a restaurant?
Graham Cleverley, London SW7
You have cost me an enormous amount of money, Michael (I feel I can call you Michael under the circumstances). It was upon your recommendation that my wife and I and two friends went to the Hotel Splendido in Portofino for a long weekend. During this time, I managed to spend about 10% of my annual income. Despite this, however, I entirely agree with you that it would be extremely difficult to find anywhere better - and I enclose photographic proof that you are still on the wall of the Splendido.
Roy Howell, Wolverhampton
I am surprised that R Thomas (Style, November 29) was so disappointed at the service and English-speaking abilities of the staff at Club Gascon in London. I have had the extreme pleasure of dining there twice at lunch and once for dinner. On each occasion the food was exquisite and the service attentive without being invasive, a balance so often absent in my recent dining experiences. Each time, I had long discussions with the staff, all of whom had no apparent communicational impairments. I suggest that R Thomas attend elocution lessons and, in the interim, frequent only the "cool Britannia" establishments that are so obviously more a reflection of his tastes.
A T Tucker, London EC1