Published 1 December 2002 News Review 490th article
My Lucca day: Winner with Pacini and Barbieri at Bucadisantantonio (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
Geraldine had never seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so I diverted Marwan's Learjet (I rent it from him) from Florence to Pisa.
The tower has been saved from collapse. I saw a TV programme about it where everyone argued for years, with the Italians overruling a nice Englishman. They eventually did their own thing to correct the overleaning tower and nearly had it fall to the ground.
Reluctantly, the Italians adopted the Englishman's delightfully simple scheme. They dug out earth from the other side of the tower to the lean and it resettled into the area where earth had been removed.
Every bit as interesting was the nearby town of Lucca. This had all the things Italian cities possess: towers, churches, a cathedral, old squares with balconies, but was better preserved and less tourist-ridden than most. Visit Lucca and eat at Bucadisantantonio, a fantastic restaurant founded in 1782. They print their name, as I've done, all in one. The Michelin guide, which amazingly gives it no stars, calls it Buca di Sant' Antonio. The food is remarkable.
It doesn't look much. A whitewashed room with old beams, a tiled floor, wooden chairs and an array of copper things hanging from the ceiling. A distinguished man with white hair, a moustache and a tartan tie came over. "Are you the owner?" I asked. "No, I'm the director," he said. Whatever that means.
The owners are Giuliano Pacini, the chef, tall, angular and bespectacled, and Franco Barbieri, a Sven-Goran Eriksson look-alike who runs the restaurant. "We've prepared the traditional Lucchese kitchen. You've heard of the Lucchese kitchen?" asked Giuliano. "No," I replied. "Like Tuscan," explained Giuliano.
He recommended his starter of cold rabbit salad. For my main course I chose roasted baby goat with potatoes and sauteed turnip leaves. Geraldine had carpaccio of trout followed by porcine mushrooms with corn mash.
We were given a white wine, Giallo dei Muri 2001. The waiter started a major dissertation about this, which I totally failed to understand. "It's in the hills," he said, pointing to some rather weird pots on the ceiling. These were flasks with thin necks, once used for dissolving penicillin.
The rabbit salad was very tasty indeed. Then we got a small freebie portion of home-made ravioli, mine with meat, Geraldine's with ricotta cheese. It was all historic.
The waiter said "We have two ladies that just make pasta all day." He waved his hands from centre to outwards. I wasn't sure what that meant either.
The goat was very succulent. Mr Ramsay should introduce "Goat a la Gordon" into his three Michelin-starred restaurant. Mine was accompanied by lovely little potatoes, probably roast, maybe fried. Giuliano said he half cooked them in the oven with sage and rosemary and then "passes for the minute fried".
Then I had a superb green apple sorbet. With it were home-produced biscuits with no butter and no eggs, made with olive oil and Vino Santo. This also means little to me, but they tasted terrific.
When you come across places like Bucadiwhatever, it restores your faith in the quality of food. I ended up with the usual performance - "We would like you to be our guest." To which I responded with answer 23B: "I always pay. You really have to take this credit card." Eventually I persuaded them. A lovely outing.
By contrast I had a terrible meal in one of the world's great settings, the Piazza del Campo in Siena. This was at the Cafe al Mangia, which offered a stunning view of the medieval square. Unfortunately, they served food.
The dreadful spaghetti, with some sort of Siena meat sauce, was so thick it was like macaroni. Geraldine had chicken, lavishly written about on the menu. It was dry and nasty. Strawberries were on offer, but there weren't any. The coffee was appalling.
Back in London I went to the beautifully catered At Home to celebrate the 30th year of writing by food critic supreme Fay Maschler. My friend Andrew Lloyd Webber told me how much he was enjoying my book, The Winner Guide to Dining & Whining. He'd been reading it on flights to and from New York.
"I was wrong," he said. "You do know something about food. I can see a valid consistency of opinion running throughout."
This is worrying. I've got by for years as an over-opinionated ignoramus nincompoop. If people think I know what I'm talking about, who knows what may happen. I do hope my friend Gordon Ramsay, also at the party with his staggeringly beautiful wife Tana, holds firm to his publicly stated opinion that I know nothing about food. Don't waver, Gordon. It could be the end of me.
We concur with Vernon Barber (Winner's Letters, November 17) in relation to the Ritz. Granted the dining room is grand, but the food was mediocre, the attention oppressive and the quantity scant. In spite of the obsession with London, there are establishments in the shires that offer higher quality and value.
David and Linda Pugh, Stourbridge
What is your expert opinion on waiters pouring wine? I don't mind having the first glass poured for me but after that it aggravates me. It's an intrusion. When I visited a restaurant in Hong Kong, I had to hide the bottle under the table, clenched between my feet. The waiter got on all fours and tried (and failed) to retrieve it. Isn't it as bad as buttering my bread for me and cutting up my meat?
Steve Young, Potters Bar
While St Mark's Square in Venice is reputed to purvey the most expensive cup of coffee, the Lugger at Portloe in Cornwall must come close. Last Saturday four of us walked from Veryan to Portloe and decided to take a break there. We were told we would have to sit outside as we had a dog (fair enough) but coffee for four would be £12. We declined their generous offer.
David Edgington, Westbury
I'm an English expat living in Ireland. It takes a major battle to prevent chefs overcooking the meat here. Ask for a blue steak and it will arrive so well cooked it would better serve for resoling boots. English menu-speak is slavishly followed. "Line-caught" provides a picture of a sporty gent working hard to catch a bass on a rod. The truth is the technique is long lining, which at its worst utilises a line up to five miles long. As for "pan-fried" - what else would one fry in but a pan? A dustbin lid? Menus refer to sea bass but there's no such creature. There is bass. The vast majority are reared on fish farms, probably in Italy, and have never seen the open sea in their lives. I know these things because I am a marine biologist.
Alan Pearson, Co Mayo
Reference your reader who complained at the speed of dining in St Mawes, Cornwall (Winner's Letters, last week). I went there once but I asked the chef to serve me as slowly as possible. There was certainly nothing better to do.
Jo Nicol-Simpson, Poole