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More of the zucchini ... less of the bionic bunny

Published 6 February 2005
News Review
604th article

Winner with Michael and Jenny Linnit, and Alvaro Maccioni, seated (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

It was because of Michael Linnit that I first went to Barbados. He and his wife, the singer Jenny Wren, were staying at the Coral Reef 23 years ago.

He persuaded me to join him there just after Christmas. I was in Cannes watching my mother lose her seventh million (pounds that is, not yen) at the casino when Michael rang and said he'd switched me to Sandy Lane because he feared the Coral Reef wasn't good enough.

He was right. Then the Coral Reef was tacky. Now it's marginally better. Last New Year's Eve at Sandy Lane we wore no jackets, short-sleeved shirts and devoured the most marvellous buffet ever. At Coral Reef they demanded full black tie evening dress to eat a meal a friend of mine described as "mediocre".

Mr Linnit is a well-known theatrical agent and impresario.

He suggested, after I'd given him an excellent dinner at the Wolseley, that he reciprocate at La Famiglia.

This is owned and run by one of the great old-timers of the London restaurant scene. An admirable professional from Florence, Alvaro Maccioni.

He opened his first restaurant, Alvaro, on the King’s Road in Chelsea in 1966. Then he had the great "in" place of the late 60s and early 70s, the Aretusa, also on the King’s Road.

This was a wonderful, spacious, atrium-like, first-floor restaurant. It's where I had my first sighting of Charles Bronson. There was a bar downstairs. All the stars went there. It was incredibly atmospheric and lively.

Alvaro opened La Famiglia, just off the King's Road, in 1975. It was always very popular. But not with me. I favoured San Lorenzo.

I hadn’t been to La Famiglia for decades. It's a pleasant place composed of a number of rooms with a garden at the back which is covered over in winter. We were at a highly respectable table by the window in a corner of the "no smoking" room.

Tiled floor, tiles up the wall to dado rail height, real family photos on the walls. Alvaro recommended the "zucchini flowers deep fried".

I was hypnotised by the "chopped chicken livers, capers, garlic on toast".

Rather than spend time on decisions it's easier to order everything and sort it out when the food arrives. So I said: "I'll have them both."

For my main course I opted for "roast rabbit with rosemary, garlic and a wine sauce - organic". The starters were sensationally good. The batter on the zucchini flowers was perfect, light and tasty. The chopped liver on toast was historic.

Then on came this bionic rabbit. It was so big! It didn’t even taste like rabbit, more like veal. If that's "organic" I'll have factory-farmed bunny any day.

During the second world war they used to serve rabbit and pretend it was chicken. My father would sit in the Savoy Grill and say: "Is it really chicken or is it rabbit?" As if they'd give him an honest answer! Alvaro's rabbit would never pass as chicken. It was too solid. But the sauce was nice.

Sweet trolleys are invariably deceptive. Everything looks good, but usually isn't. London's best sweet trolley is at the Dorchester Grill. Sadly they're about to redesign that (the Grill room, not the sweet trolley) and some of the other Dorchester restaurants too. We all know what that means. Impending disaster.

At La Famiglia there was wild strawberry cheesecake, which I chose without expecting much. Restaurant cheesecakes are usually dire. This was light and amazingly good.

Geraldine had tiramisu, mousse au chocolate and - per my tape recording - "an almond thing". Michael Linnit had a fruit salad. Not to be left out, while Geraldine and I raved about our desserts, he took a bite and said: "I've never tasted an apple like that."

Geraldine told us that when she was young they used to swig olive oil before going out to get drunk because it lined the stomach. This prompted Alvaro to relate a story about acquiring olive oil in 1959, which I totally failed to understand.

When Michael Linnit got the bill he said: "This is the only restaurant - and I've been coming here for 12 years - that hasn't given me a pen." Geraldine helpfully provided one.

I never get bills in restaurants. I have accounts sent on later. I find, even if the service has been good, getting the bill and waiting for your credit card to be returned takes forever.

Michael Linnit said: "I was walking along the King's Road the other day when a man in an anorak pushing a bicycle along the pavement said: 'Michael?' I said: 'Yes.' The man said: 'You're Michael Winner, aren't you?' " I don't think Linnit was happy about that. He should have taken it as a compliment.

Winner's letters

I caught a glimpse of you on television saying: "You have to have a bit of rubbish in the culture." Does that mean you want to leave News Review for another section of The Sunday Times?
Ray Mitchell, Gloucestershire

Regarding your Sandy Lane review and the ordinary people. What an obnoxious, self-opinionated bastard you must be. Written with a lyrically soft Irish pen by . . .
Dermot McManus, Dublin

I seem to remember you couldn't pay cash for drinks at the Sandy Lane beach bar (Winner's Dinners, January 23). You had to sign a chit giving your room number. Maybe the "yobbos" you mentioned gave your room number and that's why your trip cost £100,000!
Edna Weiss, London