Published 12 December 1999 Style Magazine 335th article
Suite dreams: Michael Winner with Dr Natale Rusconi in No 224-5 at the Cipriani (Miss Lid the third)
There was a disturbance in the Caffe Lavena in St Mark's Square, Venice, as I sat drinking my Fanta Aranciata. It was quite vile, like the stuff you get in Kensington High Street. Nothing like the same-named drink in Morocco. No, I'm wrong. I'd finished the Fanta and was drinking a San Pellegrino orange drink, also revolting. I'd been listening to violinist Luca Marigo, a bald man with a lookalike, Albert de Meis. They did a terrific, melodious, comedy-band routine. Suddenly an American grabbed all the tapes of their music on display and shouted loudly: "Call the police! Call the police!" The band were on one of their many breaks. I thought the fracas livened things up. Albert and Luca let the double-bass player deal with the man, who, it seemed, had received the wrong change. After considerable negotiation and bad temper, the disgruntled tourist was given some cash and departed.
I was in Venice with Miss Lid ("Lady in Danger") No 2. You've not met her. She's an American from Colorado and says that's why she doesn't eat fish. This puts you at a disadvantage in Venice. As I was coming back with her on the hotel launch to the Cipriani, an American woman gushed: "I read your column every week." Her elderly male companion said: "I'm told you're a famous food writer. Can you recommend me a restaurant?" "Harry's Bar." I replied. "Eurrgghh!" he said, as if I were an idiot. They want you to recommend some little place in a smelly backstreet. Harry's Bar deserves my Best in the World Award. I checked it out on that trip and again a few weeks later with Miss Lid No 3. For one of my advanced years, I have been unduly active.
For the first time ever, with Miss Lid 2, I was unable to get the Winner's Dinners Best Suite in the World, No 224-5 - very large, very elegant and overlooking the lagoon. We ended up one below in the Guinness Suite - that family once owned the Cipriani. It's very nice. old-fashioned decor, only a tad behind my favourite. It was with Miss Lid No 3 (I hope you're keeping up with the numbers; I have problems) that I dined at the Cipriani. At the end of October, on my birthday. I had Adriatic fish soup with home-made noodles; Miss Lid had mixed salad with scallops and deep-fried porcini mushrooms seasoned with balsamic vinegar. The standard was excellent. The fried scampi with rice that followed were impeccable. Then for dessert, a sort of plum cake with nuts, a lovely, old-fashioned cassata and . . . oh dear, a young Englishman at the next table heard me dictating and interrupted: "Can I say something? Is that allowed?"
I felt like uttering a grossly vulgar dismissal, but he carried on. "I thought the beef was very good," he said, speedily changing it to "pretty good". He added that the onion soup was "passable". This is what I have to put up with. I met the chef, who has really spruced things up, a nice local chap called Renato Picolotto.
The Cipriani is still far and away the best hotel in Venice. Although there was one dodgy moment. Miss Lid No 2 got a letter in the suite from an American tourist, addressed with her full married name. I went bonkers. How did this woman find out? Eventually the concierge sheepishly admitted that he had given out the name when asked "Who is the lady with Michael Winner?" I expressed my displeasure. Dr Natale Rusconi, the doyen of hotel managers, a superb, scholarly-looking fellow, tried to placate me. "They mustn't give out guests' names," I said. "I mean, how many people do you have here with married women?" "Ah," said Dr Rusconi, "I could tell you stories..." But he didn't.
Incidentally, be assured that Miss Lid No 2 was three days off her final divorce. Although I've never sampled it, I view the sanctity of marriage as supreme.
On my visit with Miss Lid No 3 we sat by a quiet canal in Murano at the wonderfully local Ristorante Bar Tanduo, before walking to the superb restaurant Ai Frati. We had a coffee and looked at the small, old houses bathed in the autumn sun. Venice is heavenly. I go at least twice a year. The absence of cars, horrid ugly foul-smelling things, would be worth the trip even if the architecture wasn't historic. Venetians think February is the best month. So consider booking to compensate for the ghastly millennium. My good friend, the theatrical Impresario Michael White, described it as "an event for people who've never gone out". I wish I'd said that. In future, I probably will.
We were enjoying afternoon tea recently at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town when a young mother picked up her toddler, laid her down on one of the luxurious settees and proceeded to change her dirty nappy, seemingly quite oblivious to anyone else. The many staff there also appeared not to notice. It quite spoilt our enjoyment.
Judith Hulme, by e-mail
Call me a tourist, but when I have thoroughly enjoyed a meal I like to take a menu away with me. I always ask and have never been refused. Some restaurants have extremely fancy and expensive menus. Raymond Blanc was even kind enough to autograph one for me. On a recent visit from Bahrain, my brother and I had enjoyed a simply superb dinner at the Fat Duck in Bray and, duly satisfied, politely requested la carte, only to be fobbed off with the innards of said object. Protests were in vain and I left, annoyed, clutching two sad, typewritten pages. Needless to say, these are now lining the bottom of my hamster cage.
Robert Wakefield, by e-mail
I would like you to lead a campaign whereby all reviews of restaurants include a comment on the comfort of the chairs. I am increasingly unable to sit beyond the first course due to hard wooden seats. Could this just be to make sure I do not linger?
Alan Turner, San Francisco, USA
Your recent correspondence about wobbly table legs reminds me of a trip to Portugal several years ago. In virtually every eating establishment we suffered tabular instability. I could only conclude that there was a general blight on the furniture. Perhaps someone from the Portuguese embassy could enlighten us as to whether the wobbles have been brought under control since the country gained full EU membership?
Gary Dickson, Belfast
I love your witty, if geriatric, reviews involving the subculture of maitre d's and stretch limos. Personally, I dine at Her Majesty's Pleasure: three- day-old sausages, overdone chicken, underdone chips and meatless meat pies, with the occasional powdered oeuf on a Saturday morning. You really should try these culinary delights: you will not be impressed.
David Harvey, HMP Kirkham, Preston, Lancs