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A bird in the hand

Published 22 August 1999
Style Magazine
319th article

Singing for his supper: Daniella, Claudia and Giuseppe Grosso with Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)

There are some advantages to my food-advice hobby, such as not being able to go back to Cliveden. There are also disadvantages. A sense of honour compels me to recommend places I believe in. The result is that what was comparatively quiet can become somewhat overcrowded. Sitting by the pool at the Hotel Splendido in Portofino a year after my first serious recommendation, Vanessa said: "There seem to be more people here than usual." Then Sunday Times readers came up to me, one after another, to announce they were there because of my advice. So now, when I telephone, there's a deadly hush from Maurizio Saccani, the general manager. "But Mr Winner, we are full," he says. Then: "Hold on," and after a minute, "We have built a suite for you."

Rather like at Assaggi in Notting Hill, where Nino gasps when I call an hour before arriving. "Don't worry, Mr Winner, I shall shoot someone," he says decisively. Nino has become quite robust in expressing his views. When people ask to sit at my table and have what I order, his response, without being overtly violent, is quite dramatic.

Portofino is in Liguria, a coastal area of northwest Italy. I find it totally enchanting. It's one of the last well-preserved parts of Europe. If you drive south down the two lane, narrow road that runs by the sea, there are no modern buildings to affront you. You pass through the little village of Paraggi and on to Santa Margherita, a town where the clock has stood still. Grandly designed 19th-century hotels look out over the sea, their windows surrounded with shutters and ornately painted decorations.

It's the most difficult place in the world to park. I briefly befriended the local naval commander and, after a lot of ingratiating, used the forecourt of his beautiful old headquarters, right by the harbour. Now I go by boat. There's a delightful bistro called Skipper overlooking the port, where you sit in white directors' chairs and get manrellous local shrimp, mussels, cuttlefish and whatever. I assume it comes from the old-fashioned marble slab-ridden market nearby, where the fishermen unload their catch and it's displayed for locals to buy. I had memorable mussel soup with white wine, tomato sauce, olive oil and pepper. And an excellent tart.

Stroll along the waterside at Santa Margherita and you'll find a fascinating family-run antique shop called Il Cantuccio. There, 85-year-old dad, Giuseppe Grosso, winds up a bird in a 19th-century cage so it sings for you. His two daughters, Claudia and Daniella, help out. I thought letting you see them would make a photographic change from chefs. My house is littered with fantastic bits and pieces I've bought there. Then I walk on to Miki, a superb ice cream parlour, and pig out uncontrollably. I know of no better ice cream.

Climb the steep hill that rises behind Santa Margherita and you'll eventually reach La Stalla, which has dramatic views overlooking the bay. Cesare Frati is the owner and his daughter, Lavinia, greeted us. You sit on his terrace. I particularly admired the six bowls of antipasti already on the table when we arrived, so I didn't have to wait to eat. We went at night. Sadly, some insect was making a noise in the adjacent bush, which frightened Vanessa. We had risotto with mushrooms, and "Daddy fruit cake", which was like a sausage roll with fruit in it. The sorbet was more like a fruit frappe, rather liquid and in a tall wine glass.

I went inside to meet the chef, Mr Luca, and a large, very docile dog. Then suddenly, a door flew open and his canine friend, severely overactive and also black, shot out and went totally bonkers. I bore it bravely. What else could I do?

Go further south, an hour by speedboat from Portofino, and you come to Vernazza, an incredibly beautiful, tiny village, nestling at the bottom of steep hills. The harbour is totally historic. So is the food at Gianni Franzi, which overlooks the 13th-century church, a little square and the dramatic coastline. For an appetiser they do endless styles of anchovies. May sound dull, but they're one of the great taste sensations of all time. Also, sweet tomato and herring slices, cheese puffs, octopus, calamari and stuffed mussels. The macaroni with scampi was brilliant. This is where Lord and Lady Rogers (her ladyship owns and runs the River Cafe) go two or three times a year to get a few tips. I met them coming ashore in Gianni's boat. They stay in his adjacent hotel. Very small rooms and lots of stairs. Not for me. I just like to sit looking at one of the greatest restaurant views ever. And eat. Those are my specialities. Sitting and eating.


Having for years been taken for Inspector Morse, I was shocked to be told I looked like Michael Winner. This happened at Renato's Bar and Diner in Costa Natura, Estepona (which I recommend), where it must have been obvious to the most casual observer that there was only a slim chance of my being Michael Winner. Needless to say, I'm on a strict diet in order to get back my John Thaw good looks.
Michael Garnett, Leeds, West Yorks.

I followed your column avidly while living in Europe, but I did not realise that I would miss it so much upon my return to America. I have cooked professionally on both sides of the Atlantic, and you have no idea how close to the mark your reviews are. No food writer here is willing to speak about restaurants in as forthright a fashion as you do. Would that we had someone with your balls.
Brendan Orr, Key West, Florida, USA.

Has Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, London, lost his marbles? A friend of mine recently tried to book a table for lunch, only to be told I was banned because I had complained about the service on an earlier visit. Yet on the same day he wrote me a letter about the incident, saying that I was a "valued and loyal guest" and hoping he would see me again. At Chez Bruce, it seems, the customer is always wrong.
Anne Birnhak, London.

After seeing Star Wars at the Odeon in Leicester Square, London, I decided to take my children to the nearby Haagen-Dazs restaurant for ice creams and tea. We walked in and headed for one of the two empty tables, only to be told by a surly waitress in an unpleasant manner that there was a queue outside and we should get in it. After eight minutes of standing there (the queue had by now grown considerably), there was no sign of a waitress ushering anyone to a table or explaining how long the wait might be. Eventually, I went back into the restaurant and there were the two tables, still uncleared and still empty. We decided then that we didn't want to give any money to somewhere that was so appallingly run. A while later, we wandered past the restaurant again and, surprise surprise, through the window I could see that the tables were still empty. The same people were still queuing patiently while the waitresses chatted away inside. I suggest Haagen-Dazs sticks to selling lollipops through other people's shops. When it tries to do it itself, it's obviously too much like hard work.
Justin Wells, London.