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At these prices you'd expect some table manners

Published 22 August 2004
News Review
580th article

Michael Winner and concierge Domenico Columbano at the Pitrizza hotel in Sardinia (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

There are hotels people you respect keep telling you to go to. I'd been hearing forever about the Pitrizza on the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia. So I went. Ho hum, I say. Great it isn't.

They could only give me a modest duplex suite, looking onto some grass, hedges and a small, public bay. I was also offered, and accepted, a one-bedroomed villa for the last two nights at the staggering sum of £5,500 a night.

When I got to the Pitrizza I inquired where the villa was. "About half a kilometre away," they said. "How do I get to the dining room?" I asked. "We pick you up," was the reply.

I do not wish to sit in any accommodation at the mercy of a driver. If you can't walk to the dining room from your bedroom, forget it. So I declined the villa and stayed, as always, modest.

The Pitrizza is not a thing of beauty. It was built in 1963 and re-done in 1990.

The suites are in dumpy, stone buildings with greenery on the roof. They reminded me of second world war air-raid shelters.

Inside the furniture was pleasant but primitive. There was a television in the sitting room but not in the bedroom. Geraldine rightly said most of the public rooms, combined with the furnishing, looked like a Swiss chalet. I added, "gone wrong".

The dining room ceiling is low and dark. When I first went there I asked for a table overlooking the bay and was told I couldn't have it. They showed me to an inferior table still on the edge but with a poor view.

Then after 15 minutes they said I was at the wrong table and moved me to the next one. "This is not the most efficient restaurant I've ever eaten in," I dictated into my tape.

The chef is Agostino Vince. His food is definitely good - asparagus risotto, fried squid and scampi (too much squid, not enough scampi), grilled red snapper, lobster salad, that sort of thing.

The waiter poured fizzy water into my glass when I was having still water. That really annoys me. Waiters shouldn't just pick up one of two different bottles and pour without checking who's having what. The restaurant manager, Rino Dimonte, did not display charm. Most of the other hotel staff did. The boss, Pierangelo Tondina, is particularly pleasant and professional.

At breakfast I chose a nice-sized table. The waiter said "doo-ay" - Italian for "two" - and indicated a smaller one. The restaurant was almost empty, so what's all that about? The butter was in tiny, foil-wrapped slivers; ridiculous for a hotel with suites at £5,500 a night. The breakfast display was poor.

There's a nice terrace facing a moderately good view where the bellinis are superb and the staff exemplary. Geraldine gave the view seven out of ten. There's a wide bay with an island facing you, degraded by some ghastly houses being built on it and a yellow crane.

On the right there's a low headland with some modern houses and scrubland. The hard sand beach is full of sharp, nasty little stones. They hurt your feet. This is not my idea of heaven.

The beach loungers are well spaced apart and you can walk straight into the sea.

Except when I was there the mistral - a heavy, gusty wind - blew five days running. The water was so cold hardly anyone went in and it was too rough for a boat trip.

So we visited the nearest town, Porto Cervo, which is boutique hell. All the architecture is modern, created to sell things to tourists. There's no reality.

The whole coast is tacky. It's built for visitors and people wanting holiday apartments.

I got a glimpse of the real Sardinia thanks to the superb concierge, Domenico Columbano. He took us to meet his 83-year-old father in Arzachena, inland enough to have real, old Italian buildings.

When his father saw me using my tape recorder he said to Domenico, "My memory's not very good. Buy me a tape recorder." Then we went to Domenico's daughter's farm and on to Domenico's farm.

The Sardinian interior is beautiful: white rocks and dark green vegetation.

Domenico, in full concierge suit, got out of his posh Mercedes onto the rutted farm track and made noises. Cows, including his favourite, Caterina, came from everywhere, as if he was the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

"Before there was no money. People were poor but they were happy. Now there's much money and people are not happy," explained Domenico.

I said, "I don't know why you even bother with the hotel, it's so lovely out here in the country."

"I need the money," said Domenico.

Winner's letters

At the Acorn Wholefood Cafe in Church Stretton, Shropshire, my wife's dessert consisted almost exclusively of 63 damson stones. When pointed out to the proprietor she snapped, "Damsons have stones. You can't expect us to take them out." We recently revisited the restaurant. "cottager's pie with JP" turned out to be meat and potato pie with jacket potato. I enquired if it was possible to have vegetables. "Vegetables?" the proprietor snapped, "I don't have time to do vegetables!"
Robert Cory, Cheshire

Being on a gluten-free diet is difficult enough, but you imagine in top-class restaurants they'd know about allergies. Imagine my shock when at Marco Pierre White's Quo Vadis the maitre d' on being told that I was allergic to flour removed the vase of carnations from in front of me, apologising profusely.
Anja Perry, Essex.

I booked at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, also reserving a bar table for pre dinner drinks. A young woman said, "I'll take you straight to your dinner table." I pointed to a reserved table for four in the bar. "We'd first like a drink there," I said. "If you don't go straight to your restaurant table now I can't guarantee to serve you," said the young woman. If I'd had Gordon Ramsay's number I'd have given him a bollocking, and not a jovial one as you gave Jeremy King last week. Suddenly another young woman appeared. She took the reserved sign off our bar table, saying, "Would you like to sit here?" We wondered who the dreadful woman was in reception who set the wrong tone for the evening.
Norman Coxall, Surrey.

Hoping to avoid your Wolseley lost booking problem (Winner's Dinners, last week) I called in the morning to check everything. I mentioned it was our wedding anniversary and I didn't want anything to go wrong. After our main course we decided to skip dessert and have coffee. A dish of strawberries arrived at our table with a Happy Anniversary message. I thought this was a very nice gesture - until I found it on the bill!
Barry Gregory, Hampshire

I'm constantly amazed at the enormous prices of meals and hotels your letters reveal - and that people actually pay good money for them when they lead to so many complaints.
Ian Taylor-Forrest, Dorset.

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