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It's worth putting in writing -this place is historic

Published 12 June 2005
News Review
623rd article

Winner with, from left, Girasoli, Saccani and de Fabrizio (Paola Lombard)

The facade of the Villa San Michele, a hotel on a hill outside Florence, was designed by Michelangelo. The hotel itself is an old monastery where you sit for dinner on a terrace overlooking Florence.

The food is spectacular. The suites are beautifully designed and comfortable. It is - in every sense of the word - historic. It gets my highest rating. In spite of some hiccups!

The concierge, Maurizio Ammazzini, rented me a Renault Megane car with a ridiculous non-key disc you put in. He couldn't start it. We had endless trouble.

Maurizio replaced it with a red Smart car. One of the most awful vehicles ever produced. That came with hardly any petrol.

Outside Siena we desperately searched for garages as the needle swooped to nil.

When I asked Maurizio why he'd given me a car with so little petrol he said he'd checked it himself and it was full. A ridiculous statement. Otherwise he was good.

He finally produced a Citroen Pluriel, which I liked.

The restaurant manager, Vittorio Dall'O, is one of those silly people who think, if they write your order down, they're not as macho as they should be.

One night we discussed vegetables and settled on creamed spinach. "Very English," observed Vittorio. I don't know whether that was a compliment, a simple observation or a sneer.

The spinach duly arrived, was seen on the serving table, but never served. When I decided to complain -it had vanished.

The next night we ordered sauteed potatoes. The superb chicken Milanese for Paola and veal Milanese for me came. But no potatoes! I said to Vittorio: "You forgot to order the sauteed potatoes."

"Yes," he said. Not "I'm sorry." Just "Yes."

Eventually he produced some, which were clearly uncooked. I handed mine back.

Paola, wishing to be Miss Nice, kept hers. Then tried them. "They're rock hard," she said and gave hers back.

"I insist you have a pad in future and write our order down," I said to Vittorio.

Two days later he appeared without one. "Where's the pad?" I asked. "I have a very good memory," he responded. "Nonsense," I said. "We've proved you don't. Write our order down, please."

When the correct food arrived, which was most of the time, it was totally superb.

The chef, Attilio de Fabrizio, is amazing. Deep-fried scampi, traditional Siena pasta with artichoke flavoured with goat's butter, crunchy cappuccino and meringue with cinnamon ice-cream. I could go on.

Paola said: "If you've got an Italian mother every restaurant has to live up to mamma's cooking." She decided the Villa San Michele definitely did.

Paola is ferocious about coffee. She voted San Michele's cappuccino the best ever.

I've never had so many great meals in a row.

The general manager of the San Michele is Maurizio Saccani. He also manages the Splendido in Portofino; the hotel Caruso, which the Orient Express group will soon open in Ravello; and a bizarre winery with rooms, Capannelle, which I visited, and fled from, in Tuscany.

Maurizio is exemplary. He takes such care with the rooms, hanging pictures himself, laying out the furniture. Everything is immaculate. When he's not at the Villa it's run excellently by the deputy manager, Franco Girasoli. Insist the restaurant chief uses his pad and you'll find near perfection at the Villa San Michele.

The gardens are breathtaking, the swimming pool exquisite. It's better than staying in Florence itself where the best hotels are part of large conglomerates, and the tourists are shoulder to shoulder on narrow pavements.

When you do enter the city, try the absolutely marvellous Cantinetta dei Verrazzano. It's in the centre. A kind of delicatessen come fantastic coffee bar with incredible snacks and full of character. Avoid the Gilli bar in the Piazza de Republica. It looks good but the food is diabolical.

We had a perfectly pleasant lunch in Siena's great medieval square at the restaurant al Manga. Very good service, terrific pasta.

I greatly recommend Lucca, one of the most beautiful of Italian towns, with a restaurant beyond-belief excellent, the Bucadisantantonio. Twenty minutes away is Pisa where you can stand with arm outstretched and be photographed as if you're supporting the leaning tower.

  • PS: On this excursion Paola said to me: "You suffer from OCD, which is obsessional compulsive disorder. It's not been treated." Paola considered her diagnosis and declared: "All the intellectuals who read you will laugh at that." By which she meant the doctors.

    Little did she realise nobody with an intellect could possibly read this column.

    She thought I wanted to control everybody's life. I know she was really referring - kindly, of course - to my natural concern for order and efficiency.

    Winner's letters

    The Owsley-Browns (Winner's Dinners, last week) offering you "brioche maison -toasted and bloodied" could be a Machiavellian way to dispatch you to the great restaurant in the sky? Why not hire me as your personal food taster to thwart further gastronomic attempts on your life.
    Ermanno Nuonno, Twickenham.

    Last week's photo outside Fishes shows Matthew and Neil standing about 10ft from your rear. Is it because they're aware of the likely result of eating tandoori porbeagle shark, kachumba, raita, mango chutney and poppadom? Caroline, next to you, looks positively rigid with apprehension.
    Christopher Hirsh, Dorset.

    It seems you were leaning on the proprietor of Fishes restaurant in order to remain vertical. You looked like a man of rapidly advancing years and declining stamina. Having recently made such a youthful selection from the sweet trolley of life, maybe you've at last bitten off more than even you can chew?
    Barry Kane, Nottingham.

    You were pictured last week wearing shrivelled, turned-up moccasins. Are you now going about in your carpet slippers? Or does high tide on the Norfolk coast reach as far inland as Burnham Market these days?
    Jacqueline Grace, Lincolnshire

    Glad to see you're dating a lady who can compose and take better pictures. Last week we saw she must also be adept with the computer enhancement of photos. Her skills seem to refute the old saying: "You can't make a diamond out of a pig's arse."
    Linda Renner, Co Cork.

    At London's Savoy Grill the latest doctrine is no salt and pepper on the table and no brown bread with their smoked salmon and gravadlax. Paying a small fortune for the Savoy cooking the customer surely has a right to the preference of his own palate.
    David Benge, London.

    We checked the internet regarding the Black Boys Inn near Henley, to be sure, as vegetarians, there'd be things we could eat. The menu showed a vegetarian starter and main course. But there was only a starter, no main course at all. The waiter sang the praises of their marinated meat and home-made foie gras and then actually encouraged us to leave. This at 8pm on Saturday night!
    Leila Clarke, Maidenhead.

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