Published 16 January 2000 Style Magazine 340th article
The Italian job: Michael Winner with Michel Lengui, Valerio Calzolari and two waiters (Miss Lid the Third)
I exclude from my general displeasure with hospitality in the catering industry anyone who is Italian. The Italians are natural experts at being genuinely charming hosts. They make you feel at ease and wanted, unlike many English restaurant employees who make you feel edgy and unwanted. This bonhomie, if I may mix languages, is never more evident than at Scalini, a popular place in Knightsbridge. I've always considered it too noisy for one of delicate disposition, but I risked it one Saturday lunch. I was greeted by a jovial man with a large moustache, Valerie Calzolari. Then I met another senior person, Michel Lengui. "Valerio is the owner, more or less," he said when I tried to establish the pecking order. "I'm the deputy manager." I walked round a bit, finally settling for the table Valerie originally suggested, in the corner of the main room. It's all very bright and cheerful. Above us was an oil painting entitled Spring in Provence by Janine Mackinlay, priced at £275. That seemed about right.
Papardelle with prosciutto, peas and meatballs was the speciality of the day. Miss Lid and I opted for that. A nice selection of focaccia, parmesan squares and bruschetta was speedily plonked on the table. I admired a fine view of the police station opposite. Then Michel brought "English calamari, they're the best in the world, from the south coast, Portland Bill." I thought Portland Bill was in Scotland. He put some pork spare ribs on the same plate. Everything so far was superb.
We'd come early as I was due in Brent Cross shopping centre to do a book signing. But it soon filled up. A lot of buongiornos and "Good afternoon and welcome" from Valerio, followed by "The toilet's on the first floor".
"They certainly need these fans," I said to Miss Lid, "it's boiling hot." "It's not boiling hot, it's cold," she replied. "Then why are those children sitting without jackets, in just shirts?" I asked perceptively. "Because they're fat enough to be warm," said Miss Lid, as I watched a very good-looking dover sole served to the table opposite.
It made me seek my main course. "He's taking hours to put it on the plate because of you," said Valerie, indicating a man at the serving table. "He's trying to be French. Italian food should be thrown on the plate." It was a good, flat, robust pasta. Nice sauce. A Barolo Bersano wine was produced. Before I could form an opinion, Miss Lid observed a man lighting a cigar at the next table. "Where's the gun? Do they serve guns here?" she asked menacingly.
They did a particularly thorough job of crumbing down (clearing the mess oft the tablecloth) and then put a new tablecloth on top anyway. The dessert trolley bumped its way through the crowded restaurant. Apple flan, fruit flan, a strawberry cheesecake, sacher torte, tiramisu. By 17 minutes to 2 things were slowing down. Miss Lid chose an apple pie hours ago, I thought. All they've got to do is cut it and bring it.
"They're putting it in the oven," said Valerio. "I didn't ask tor it to go in the oven," I huffed. I started to wax poetic. "They've decided, for no reason at all, to put this apple pie in the oven," I dictated into my tape, thinking of thousands of north Londoners waiting at WH Smith, devastated at my late arrival. When the dessert came, I thought the chocolate cake was good, the apple pie with raisins better. And l had to admit that they were quite right to heat it.
Valerio arrived and said to Miss Lid: "Here's your cappuccino." "She didn't order a cappuccino," I thought, angrily. Valerio then tipped it all over her. But it wasn't real coffee, it was a plastic fake. Good gag that. I like a bit of knockabout comedy. It went well with my vanilla ice cream.
On the way out, I stopped at tables obviously occupied by Sunday Times readers. At the first was a blond man in a blue shirt with an elegant wife and two kids. "Do you take your children to McDonald's?" I asked. "Yes," said the man, offering a few chatty words thereafter. At the next table was a nice blonds lady, a man and four children. I asked the same question. "Yes," said the man. Then as I left he called me back. "I never take them," he reflected. "They ask to go. So we have to."
"What was all that about?" I hear you say. My survey is my survey. The reason for it will be revealed another day. And no, I'm not available to ask a lot of stupid questions for you.
It is nice to be able to agree with your opinion of the Georgian restaurant at Harrods (Style, January 2). As a long-standing diner there, I have always found the food, both from the buffet and the menu, to be excellent. The staff also provide a level of service and courtesy unsurpassed in any other restaurant I have dined in.
Chris Blakemore, by e-mail
Having tackled the (still) highly unsatisfactory and dangerous noise levels in most British eateries, perhaps you may care to turn your critical eye to their decor and the invariable lack of taste thereof. Surely there are few in this country so widely travelled or better qualified to put pen to paper on this subject.
Rex Thompson, by e-mail
One of my many ambitions for the new century is to master your "napkin wave" for attracting restaurant staff. I have tried and tried, but poverty prevents me from eating out often, and seldom at restaurants with linen napkins. Could it be the use of paper napkins that is causing this valuable skill to elude me?
Cormac O'Rourke, Dublin
A recent episode of the television programme The Wonder Years on Channel 5 purported to be directed by a certain Michael Dinner. Come on, Michael - you could have chosen a less transparent nom de plume.
Gerry Castles, London
The Sunday Times' contribution to the environment in the year 2000 should be to save a tree by not printing any more of Michael Winner's pretentious and self-opinionated ramblings.
Mark Carrington, by e-mail
I was interested to read your article on La Chaumiere (Style, January 9) and the list of changes you would like to see in restaurants in the new century. I was with you when you said there should be higher standards of courtesy and comfort, lower noise levels and restaurant owners who actually turn up and run their establishments. But your suggestion that a la carte menus should be universally replaced with set options ("If you don't like it, go to another restaurant with a different set menu") made me panic. It is already difficult enough to decide on a restaurant that will keep all my friends happy. Set menus would make it virtually impossible.
Juliet Walters, Hove
Miss Lid. Lady in Danger. In danger of what, exactly?
Stuart Robertson, by e-mail
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