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Saved by a cross-border dash into spaghetti heaven

Published 11 May 2003
News Review
513th article

Italian job: Winner with Sandra and Flaviano Passerini in Chiavenna (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

Soglio is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. It's a Swiss village close to the Italian border. Please don't ask me which Italian border. They all look the same to me.

I'd got there on one of my adventurous drives to get as far away as possible from the dreary Suvretta House in St Moritz. This journey took me alongside the frozen Lake Silvaplauna. This adjoins Lake Champter where I was told the St Moritz gourmet festival would erect a tent for a grand foodie-evening.

I kept thinking of the army of knights in Sergei Eisenstein's classic Russian movie Alexander Nevsky. Their weight broke the ice of Lake Peipus and thus they were destroyed. The idea of fat, happy diners disappearing into the frozen waters amused me greatly. This shows what a sick sense of humour I possess.

Then I zigzagged with great skill over the Maloja Pass to reach milder climes with decreasing snow. If you carry on long enough there's a pretty village called Bondo on your left. It's very un-touristy. No restaurants, no Coca-Cola signs, just inhabitants. Drive back across the main road, rise into the mountains and you some to Soglio.

If you're around that area, absolutely do not miss Soglio. It's like a wall calendar illustration. A lovely church, old stone buildings, cobbled streets, fields and, towering behind, the white snow of the mountains. There are some restaurants and hotels, but as I was there in March none of them was open.

So we crossed into Italy. At once the stuffiness of Switzerland was gone. I stopped at the small Bar Camino Cafe S Salvador in San Croce. On the terrace, with a river in front of me and mountains behind, I let the sun reinvigorate me for further travel. Jolly Italian pop music came forth and the cappuccino and choccies were excellent.

We carried on to what seemed a deserted old town, Chiavenna. The Ristorante Passerini there was a venture into the unknown. The owner, Flaviano Passerini, looked like he bought his suits in Savile Row. He said I couldn't park opposite even though everything was empty. So I drove a few yards to the Piazza Castello, which had a castle, a fountain, palm trees and a statue. v The restaurant had big hooks hanging from the ceiling, presumably on which to string up customers who were a nuisance. I watched my Ps and Qs. I've no idea what Ps and Qs are. Perhaps a reader will tell me.

There was a log fire, a 19th century ormolu clock on the mantelpiece and really nice silver plates with little doilies in the middle. On the menu was a sketch of the owner and a woman. "That's my wife Sandra, she's in the kitchen," Flaviano explained.

There followed one of the best meals I've ever had. My starter of spaghetti with scampi was close to historic. I followed with filet of beef in red wine sauce. The home-made cheese straws were supreme.

There was excellent bread with lots of dips. Geraldine said the white one was artichoke, the red one pepper and the other radicchio. Then she changed her mind and decided the beige dip was cloves. They were all great, so it didn't really matter what the constituent contents were. I'd love to tell you what I had for dessert but I forgot to put it on my tape recorder.

Geraldine had raw marinated octopus, which she thought was wonderful, and then turbot. Make a detour, as they say. Go there.

The next day I took the same route but carried on through Chiavenna until I reached Lake Como. I chugged past lovely lakeside villages, but nothing was open. It was getting late for lunch. This makes me very testy We stopped in Domaso at the Bar il Battello di Costa Roberto for an espresso. They offered some toasted sandwiches, which I declined. I carried on.

Hot sun in mid-March. Wrought iron balconies. Nineteenth century buildings. No sustenance. I was about to turn back when we made a left, as the Americans say, and ended up on the lakeshore in the village of Olmo. There I spotted an oasis. The Gelataria Olmo in the Piazza Ciceri had tables right on the lake with a view of lovely old buildings, distant mountains and ducks. Church bells were chiming.

Geraldine had a very fresh salad with broad beans. I had a memorable pizza with tomato, shrimps rucola and cheese. Followed by an almost perfect vanilla ice cream.

Geraldine noticed three men nearby. "One of them's had three ice creams," she said in wonderment. I could easily have done that. But she'd have told me off.

Winner's letters

I was most surprised you declared (Winner's Dinners, last week) that Dieter Abt is "the only Swiss person worth talking to". I'm a Swiss national born and bred in Switzerland and am amazed at your impudence. Most British people are polite and reasonably sensitive to the feelings of others. I wonder where you could possibly have been dragged up.
Lore Wilkens-Wertmuller, Versoix, Geneva

I experienced terrible service at Overton Grange hotel near Ludlow. A table for 20 booked for 8.30pm two months in advance was not available until 9.30. Wine was plonked on the table with no opportunity for tasting. White wine was left on the table to go warm. There was a delay of halt an hour between the starter and main course. The first main course was stone cold by the time the last ones were delivered. A letter to the management brought an insulting reply. This after having spent over £1,000 on the meal.
Paul Tolan, Berkshire

I dined recently at Chez Max, Marco Pierre White's new bistro, having booked for five people. I asked for duck and was told they'd run out. I ordered spinach with the main course. They brought us french beans, I saying they'd run out of spinach. I ordered a dessert of chocolate with vanilla ice cream. They brought sorbet as they'd run out of vanilla ice cream. So I went to a corner shop and bought some Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice for my dessert. My bill was over £250, plus £3.99 for the Haagen-Dazs.
MKA, London

Michael Winner is wrong (Winner's Dinners, April 27). The food at the Indian restaurant near Magdalene Bridge, Cambridge, in the mid-1950s was never of "historic" quality. In those days Cambridge was not well served by Indian restaurants. One must always trust Mr Winner's judgments on food. It's his memory which needs reviving.
Mansur Satchu, Mombasa, Kenya

May I join the "loo" debate. The public ones in Paris are known as vespasiennes, apparently after the Emperor Vespasian introduced something similar to the streets of ancient Rome. In those days, ladies stood up, while men sat!
Geoff Taylor, Ascot

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk