Published 5 December 2004 News Review 595th article
Michael Winner and Christine Weber at Locanda San Vigilio (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
One of our regular correspondents, Stanley Silver - he's in again this week! - chastises me. He says that I should "stop taking the happy pills" and be unpleasant.
Stanley, only last week I was extremely rude about the Lowry in Manchester! It's impossible to criticise everything, because a lot of places are good. You should be glad I recommend them.
I get hundreds of letters from readers thanking me after they wisely acted on my restaurant and hotel advice. And a few telling me they had a terrible time!
For Stanley there's good news and bad news. The good news is that next week's venue is beyond belief awful. The bad news is I now tell of unparalleled delight at the Locanda San Vigilio in Garda, on Lake Garda.
Here are directions: it's 120km from Venice, 150km from Milan and 220km from Florence. If that doesn't help you find it in a flash, nothing will.
San Vigilio is a 500-year-old small hotel and restaurant next to a grand villa, overlooking a beautiful lake. Being a water sign, Scorpio, I'm particularly fond of water. Travelling on it is leisurely, not intruded on by fumes or traffic jams; in short, a tranquil delight.
We came by boat from the hotel Villa Feltrinelli. A dangerous journey -proving things are not always tranquil. When we set off, the water was too rough for us to cross to the peninsula on the other side. But then the lake calmed and we were able to pull up at the little jetty next to the hotel and alight.
The whole place is delightfully rustic. A lady, Christine Weber, explained that the owner, Count Guarienti Agostino, lived in the villa up a steep cobbled street behind the hotel. "He comes maybe lunchtime, but for dinner, yes."
"What do you do?" I asked.
"I help the count," said Christine. She and her husband, Erich, have done that for 25 years. She serves, he cooks. Erich appeared from the kitchen and had Christine take his photo with me. He's a great Death Wish fan. Then he returned to the stove while we sat looking at the autumn sun sparkling on the lake.
I ordered cheese flan with white truffles and cream. Geraldine had the antipasto. They were both superb. Italian cooking is the best. It's not over-fussed like the French. It has more style and joviality than the English. Our plates were cleared as soon as we'd finished. Always a good sign.
To follow Geraldine ordered grilled lavarello, a fish from the lake. I asked for spaghetti with lobster. In spite of being told the lobster came from Sardinia.
I don't like Sardinia.
I was given pincers. I called Christine over. "See this thing?"
I said pointing to the pincers.
"You will not do that," said Christine. "You're quite right. Would you please do it somewhere in the background?"
I wasn't going to start dissecting lobsters. It always goes wrong. "The minute I see the finger bowl coming I don't want it. I want someone else to do it," I dictated into my tape, and continued: "I suppose they were giving me spaghetti with a live lobster on the plate. I'd have to bash it on the head and crack it open. I'm too delicate."
Christine was an exemplary restaurant manager. She was quick and cheerful. As she came through the arch by us she almost bumped into a waiter. "Ping!" she said and smiled. I like to see staff enjoying themselves.
The lobster, beautifully shelled, was terrific. So was Geraldine's fish. We got a printed menu of desserts. The other courses were offered verbally.
Christine recommended the chocolate sponge with vanilla sauce. I accepted.
Geraldine, who'd stated her firm intention not to have a dessert, promptly ordered chocolate mousse. "Because there's no flour in it," she explained. Geraldine seriously believes you can eat chocolate and not get fat as long as there's no flour. Whatever. She looks good on it.
My pudding was like blancmange. It was very, very good. Geraldine's mousse was amazing. These two chocolate things were as tasty as any desserts I've ever eaten.
Over coffee I read their brochure. Winston Churchill stayed there. So did Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Also my least favourite prince -Charles. He was there in 1986. It's an idyllic spot.
We ended with a bit of drama over our photo. You've no idea of the emotional strain I endure organising these pictures. I'd expected the count to turn up, but he was away. To add confusion, Erich had gone shopping.
"He's got a photo with you already," explained Christine. "It's you and me then," I said, placing chairs on the jetty. Geraldine went "click" and that was that. You should go there. I will return.
The fact your visit to a bookshop in the Wirral (Winner's Dinners, last week) was sold out weeks in advance was possibly because the locals expected a better than average wine due to your superior understanding of such matters. I can't believe they'd splash out the vast sum of £4 just to hear you expounding on your book. But then I don't suppose there's much else going on in that far-flung outpost of our empire this time of year!
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire
Judging by last Sunday's photograph, are your good self and Earl Spencer joined together at the waist?
John Finegan, Co Cavan, Ireland
I was excited to hear from your company, Scimitar Films, expressing gratitude for my letters (few and modest) to your column. How was this appreciation to be manifested? I read breathlessly on. Dinner at the Ivy? A part in your next film as an ageing, psychopathic Californian hippie? Assistant screenwriter, perhaps? No. Just the opportunity to buy your autobiography through the post. Gee, thanks Michael.
Colin Drury, Powys
I'm sorry you had a bad experience at the Lowry in Manchester (Winner's Dinners, last week). Our meal there was quite the worst I'd ever known. The overdone duck was probably my fault, but there was no excuse for the waiter throwing (practically) my daughter's kir royale over me and my wife. To add insult to injury when I ordered wine we were given two glasses for three people. Modesty forbids I divulge my daughter's age, but let's say at least 21! Perhaps they thought I was underage?
Paul Wilkins, Swansea
When we dined at the Lowry we were so hungry we ordered extra chips. Six chips arrived stacked on the plate as in a game of Jenga. Cost? £3. Now the Lowry is known as the house of the 50p chip. They took so long locating the birthday cake we had to eat it on the train going home. We will not return.
Ilona Hill, Bolton
In The Ultimate Film on Channel 4 last weekend, you said you couldn't imagine anything worse than Bambi's mother being shot by hunters. What about being served food on a bed of spinach?
Ben Hodgkiss, Worcester
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail email@example.com