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Radiance in the kitchen offset by dreadful lighting

Published 13 February 2005
News Review
605th article

Winner with Adriano Gramatica and his mother, Maria, at the Lido restaurant in Villa Gargnano (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

There are two restaurants in the little towns called Gargnano on Lake Garda, Italy. La Tortuga has a Michelin star. The Lido does not.

Actually, Lido is in Villa Gargnano, which maybe is next door or maybe isn't. I got into Cambridge with my geography.

It's been on a slide ever since.

The Michelin-starred restaurant was dreary, the un-starred one brilliant.

I went first to La Tortuga. "It's like a public toilet with bright lights on the end of squiggly things sticking up a mile," I noted on my tape. Above me was a chandelier with orange, green, red and grey bulbs.

Geraldine said: "Mother's in the kitchen and the two daughters are serving." This may, or may not, have been true. Quite a lot of uncertainty this week, you notice.

"If you're right daddy should be here giving the place a bit of oomph," I observed. Geraldine said: "He ran away, couldn't stand the lighting." I ate a bit of bread, which was not good. Then we had a freebie of tomato soup with mozzarella and basil.

There was a counter with an appalling figure of a clown on it. "This is one of the ugliest rooms I've ever seen," I dictated.

Geraldine had a vegetable thing, which looked like a pasty. She said it was delicious. I put on tape that "Mine was perfectly all right." But as I failed to record what I was eating, and I've since forgotten, that was not entirely helpful.

I received a pear tart. I was hoping to see pears and pastry.

But it was all mush. I couldn't wait to get out of this restaurant. So I paid and left. Geraldine said: "You could have waited for me! You criticise it and then you behave like a pig." That's me folks. No denying it.

A couple of nights later, with peace restored, we visited the Lido in Villa Gargnano. It was out of season and completely empty. It, too, was appallingly overlit. There were plastic chairs and blue check tablecloths.

Adriano Gramatica ran the deserted front of house. His mother, Maria, was in the kitchen. Adriano said: "We have wonderful vegetable soup." We ordered it, followed by tortoloni with ricotta cheese and pumpkin. Geraldine said: "I like this sort of food." I said: "How do you know? You haven't got it yet." She said: "I know that it's good." She was right.

The soup was superb. A real home-made brew. I got so overexcited a fair amount of it went on my grey silk shirt. I was about to put fizzy water from Geraldine's bottle onto my napkin and dab it on when Adriano cautioned: "Don't use the blue napkin because your shirt will go blue." He brought me a tablecloth instead.

The pasta was utterly historic.

A man with a brochure wearing a blazer appeared and then two gay Americans from our hotel. Adriano offered them ostrich. "Is it local?" one of the gays asked.

For dessert I ordered chocolate cake with pear and a semi-fredo. The semi fredo was thin slices of cold whatever, made with fresh cream, amaretto and egg yolk.

It was absolutely incredible. The chocolate cake wasn't chocolatey enough. It didn't taste of much.

Adriano produced some of his collection of single malt Scotch whiskies. I had a 1990 Macallan as a liqueur. Adriano put seven bottles on our table, then back onto a tray. He made a speech about Scotch whisky. Geraldine whispered: "Can you imagine if he dropped them!"

I know very little about single malt Scotch even though every day I chuck some Strathmill, distilled in April 1963, into my morning and afternoon coffee. It cheers me up no end.

  • Another thing that cheers me is my new diet. I've lost 16lb in three weeks. The secret is to have no dinner other than two pieces of buttered brown toast on which I spread 50g of Beluga caviar and 50g of Sevruga caviar. The retail cost of the Beluga is £175. The Sevruga is £85.

    In a movie Diane Keaton said to Woody Allen: "In my family it's considered bad manners to put your elbows on the table." Woody replied: "In my family it's considered bad manners to buy retail." So I get my caviar wholesale. If you can't, so what? £260 a night for dinner when your health and vitality are involved is a mere bagatelle!

  • PS: Please don't send irate letters because I decline to answer your questions about some restaurant I once reviewed. I happily receive over 500 letters a week from strangers. But I have neither the staff, nor the ability, to answer them! I send autographed photos when requested. That alone quite exhausts the goodwill department.

    Winner's letters

    I was worried when Alastair Harrison wrote last week that some restaurants ban the use of mobile telephones. Will they also ban Mr Winner using his small voice recorder? This could be the end of Winner's Dinners? Without his trusty tape he'll never remember what he ate, or where.
    Geoff Benfield, London.

    The Coral Reef is understated refinement. "Tacky" is staying at the same hotel as you and Simon Cowell. I'm glad Sandy Lane exists so I don't have to spend time with people like you on holiday.
    Gary Hedley, Dorset.

    Alastair Harrison asked what action diners should take about aggressive mobile phone users in restaurants. The answer is, always have in your possession a phone jammer which will switch off all mobiles within an acceptable distance of your table. I've used mine abroad. In the UK, surprise, surprise, they are illegal to operate without a government licence. But not illegal to own!
    George Short, London.

    You wrote last week that La Famiglia didn't provide your friend Michael Linnit with a pen to sign his bill. Don't you know we're in the age of the pin number? No signing. No pens. Perhaps you and Linnit can't remember your pin numbers? You say your accounts are sent by post. Probably you don't receive them due to the Post Office. This makes your system even better.
    Tony Jacobs, Buckinghamshire

    Last week Michael described Coral Reef, Barbados as marginally better than tacky. He wouldn't understand Coral Reef's gentle charm. Like him, though, I can't imagine wearing black tie for dinner in the Caribbean heat. Neither can I imagine paying £100,000 for the privilege of not.
    Ron Welling, Jersey.

    May I suggest your next competition be to guess your cholesterol level.
    Graham Balfour-Lynn, London.

    I'd have thought the benefit to Mr Winner of flying Concorde to Barbados (Winner's Dinners, January 30) was not leaving Heathrow at 9am after breakfast in the lounge and arriving at 8.45am so he could head for the beach. It was surely that he got there in time for a second breakfast.
    Bernard Youles, Kent.

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