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Carpeted by one lady and handbagged by another

Published 22 June 2003
News Review
519th article

Winner with Lord Rogers and, seated, Gianni Franzi and Lady Rogers (Georgina Hristova)

"We missed you at our party," said Lady Rogers, co-owner of the River Cafe. "I wasn't asked," I replied. Apparently I was asked, or rather was meant to be asked, but didn't get the invite. So I never got to swan around by the Thames one fine Sunday to celebrate publication of the River Cafe Cook Book Easy. Not easy enough for me, of course.

The word "tasty" seems nowadays to be submerged in favour of plate decoration, over-presentation and too much mucking about of food. But at the River Cafe every dish tastes of something. I know of no better meals on offer anywhere in London.

I've said this before. But it didn't stop me getting a major bollocking from Lady Rogers of Riverside when, a few days after the party I'd missed, I was having lunch with one of my employers, Peter Wood, chairman of the insurance company esure. I do television commercials for them, as well as radio spots, posters and floor sweeping when required.

"You mustn't call me Lady Rogers," said Lady Rogers with feeling. "Why not?" I asked. "It's your name."

"I don't like it," replied her ladyship. "What should I call you?" I requested. Lady Rogers thought for a second. She finally came up with "Ruthie".

I hate names ending with an "ee" sound. I don't want to be called Mickey. That only makes sense if you're a mouse. Even my friend, the photographer Terry O'Neill, who signs himself Terry and is known as Terry, gets no such familiarity from me. I call him Terence. I decided to settle for Ruth. I had an auntie called Ruth, so it'll do for Lady Rogers.

Her Ruthieship rang me a few days later from Vernazza, one of the most enchanting places in the world. It's a tiny Italian village clinging to land at the bottom of steep mountains (or are they big hills?) in Liguria south of Portofino. Ruth stays at a small, spartan hotel where I've often met her and her husband, the architect Lord Rogers - or Dickie if he insists. She goes to study Italian cooking at the Trattoria Gianni Franzi, which is attached to the hotel. They're owned by the ebullient Gianni Franzi.

His trattoria faces the square, the old church and the sea. Washing hangs from 19th century windows. It's a magical place to sit and the simple food is superb.

I recently enjoyed a variety of anchovies, including some breaded and fried, some with garlic. There were cheese croquettes and stuffed mussels. Then I had penne with scampi, both fresh and delicious. For dessert Gianni offered a sour lemon sorbet with vodka. I added some strawberries.

The lunch started in diverting fashion. I arrived by speedboat from Portofino. A table in front, facing the sea, was kept for me. As I got to it an American lady plonked her handbag possessively on one of the chairs. Gianni Franzi rushed over and said she couldn't sit there.

"I may not want to eat anywhere else," announced this formidable woman. She looked like Lauren Bacall on heat. Gianni indicated a table nearby. The American lady didn't move.

"How much do I have to pay for this table?" she asked. Gianni insisted she left. "It's reserved," he said. "There's no sign on it," the woman responded. She obviously thought Gianni was an insolent waiter.

"Excuse me," I explained, "this gentleman is the owner of the restaurant."

"I may go next door," she announced. "Big deal," I thought, "who cares!" But she and her husband wisely didn't leave. They settled a few feet away.

Next to me was an English lady from Clapham who has a catering company. She'd prepared some on-screen food for one of my movies. Her parents come from Yorkshire. They'd taken the scenic route from Portofino by train. "It was all in the tunnel," they complained.

They asked me where to eat in Portofino. I said: "There's only one place, other than the Hotel Splendido, that's Puny. It's in the harbour by the Splendido Mare."

"We didn't like the food at the Mare," said the mother. She's right. They never got the food together at the Splendido Mare. Puny is always full and the Splendido Mare isn't.

Puny is another great Ligurian restaurant. Puny himself is the unofficial boss of Portofino. I often see Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, who has a villa nearby, dining at Puny. It's a very informal place but the food is brilliant. When Berlusconi got elected last time around he came to Portofino where the press photographed him in the square with his arm round Mr Puny. No fool Signor Berlusconi. He wanted to be sure of a good table.

Winner's letters

Are you still accepting entries for your anagram competition? After last week's column I'd like to suggest "I pretentious git". It's not actually an anagram of Michael Winner, but it should be.
Scott Dickinson, Edinburgh

Michael Winner may be correct saying that the Ivy holds back seats for celebrities. It still doesn’t explain how he gets in.
David Miller, Hertfordshire

Having watched you on Simon Cowell's This Is Your Life, I was perturbed by how obsequious you were. Like most of your devoted readers, I prefer the original belligerent, objectionable, handkerchief-waving person.
Stanley Silver, Hadley Wood

I go to San Lorenzo from time to time because old Winner likes it and it's so entertaining. Unfriendly waiters. Main courses often served cold. No value-added nibbles. Tiny portions. Overrated. Expensive. I also love it when you book and they say: "May I point out we don't take credit cards." It's so cooool!
Clive Drake, Colchester

I regret not taking Patrick Nolan's advice (Winner's Letters, June 8) to avoid hotels owned by "mine host". I had the misfortune to stay at Ferrari's country house hotel near Clitheroe. I was made to feel an unwanted intrusion by the owner's wife. Any attempt at conversation was met with an abrupt one-word response. Next time I'll choose a Travelodge. It will be cheaper, more welcoming, have a TV with remote control and the bedroom carpet will have been vacuumed between guests.
Peter Dunn, Berkshire

I disagree with Patrick Nolan regarding privately owned hotels. In an age of corporate cynicism I have found the indifferent service provided in chain hotels by poorly paid and untrained staff to be disappointing and irritating.
Paul Lower, Falmouth

Hugh Wilson complained last week he ate badly at San Carlo, Birmingham, while citing a positive review from our guide. He was relying on a two-year- old edition. Our current guide says San Carlo is "resting dangerously on its laurels" and warns of poor service.
Richard and Peter Harden, London

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