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If I ruled the world, you'd only get Italian restaurants

Published 3 July 2005
News Review
625th article

Michael Winner with Giorgio and Vera Bini outside Aquilla Nigra (Andrea Ruggeri)

Only Italians should be allowed to own restaurants, cook in restaurants, serve in restaurants.

Everybody else falls so far short of their food, welcome and general Italian-ness, they're out of the race.

The French offer their own brand of snootiness. They make it quite clear the customer is inferior. And if he doesn't like tiny portions and red squiggles on his plate, he's a moron.

The British are a nice race of people but were not created to own or serve in restaurants. On a good day they get away with it. Such days are rare. Italians, on the other hand, revel in hospitality. They're the only people who consistently achieve a welcoming attitude.

Although catering and hotels are called "the hospitality industry", it's a grossly misleading label. Most people in it are surly and inept. They'd be better off taking a course in sewer mending. Even when you're in an Italian restaurant where nobody speaks English you're still made to feel everything is warm and lovely.

Thus it was when I visited Mantua. I yelled to a taxi: "Lead me to Aquila Nigra!"

This is a restaurant in a very narrow street off the main square. Without my taxi to follow I'd still be driving around Mantua, lost in a sea of one-way streets, no entry signs, medieval churches and cobblestones.

The Aquila Nigra is located in a very old room with yellow walls and beautiful, exposed, ancient frescoes.

There's a wonderful wooden ceiling with beams. The tables are large and well spaced apart. In the middle is an enormous table with a big basin, like a wine cooler. Next to it is a sizeable cheese trolley. You never see that in London where they fight to utilise every inch of space.

We received what looked like crisps but were in fact incredible cheese straws.

Giorgio Bini, the owner, wore a grey suit, a grey shirt and a tie. He sported a small immaculate moustache. He looked like a banker. "He's had the restaurant 20 years," said the waiter. Mr Bini explained the chef was "mio amore" - his wife, Vera.

Every time I asked for anything Mr Bini said: "Non capisco!" Somehow I managed to get two fried eggs with white truffles sliced on top, fresh water shrimps with fried zucchini, sardines stuffed with a slice of bacon and cooked with breadcrumbs around them and some roasted Parmesan cheese. To finish I had grapefruit jelly with yoghurt ice cream.

The Aquila Nigra has a Michelin star. The food is simple, basic and wonderful.

It's worth going to Mantua just to sample Vera Bini's cooking.

If you want an example of Italian welcome and excellent food nearer home, try Scalini in Knightsbridge. Except you can't. Because tomorrow it closes until at least August 15 to have the kitchens rebuilt. They did very well on the old ones.

Recently I had the most incredible grilled sole. Large, juicy, succulent - all the things that my strips of curled up, dried out so-called sole at the fashionable Bellamy's in Mayfair were not.

The more I think of my visit, with Joan Collins you may remember, the worse it gets. Whereas Scalini's Valerio Calzori (avuncular and jovial) and Michel Lengui (quiet and charming) are two of the greatest hosts in London, Gavin Rankin, who owns Bellamy's, distanced himself from his customers. No sign of him going round the tables greeting diners as Jeremy King and Chris Corbin do at the Wolseley. He held back, doing I know not what.

He must have seen, in such a small place, the chaos at our table when water was spilled over everything, particularly Joan Collins. But he never came to inquire or apologise. Bizarre. Gavin can be extremely charming. Why does he fail to be so when it's most needed?

My vote for best phone-answerer in London goes to Stefania Tamborrino (Italian, in case you didn't guess!) at Locanda Locatelli, near Marble Arch. I've only been twice. The last time more than two years ago.

I phoned to make a reservation and before I spoke a voice said: "Hello Mr Winner, may I put you on hold for a moment?" When the girl came back I asked her name. "Do you have a title?" I added. "Yes," said Stefania, "Princess." "I've got one of those already.

And with Italian-born parents!"

I exclaimed. My reservation was handled delightfully.

When we got there Giorgio Locatelli was terrific as ever, both as a man and a chef. And Stefania greeted me in person and later came, most politely, to the table to say she was going home as she'd been on since early morning.

Everything we ate was absolutely marvellous. But, as I said, that's Italians for you.

Winner's letters

My daughter and son-in-law recently purchased an astronomically expensive cottage on the green at Burnham Market. In view of your write-up (Winner's Dinners, May 15) and the correspondence about the Hoste Arms we decided to try it. You and your readers were absolutely correct. We were very disappointed with the indifferent service. However, my partner had six of the best oysters she'd ever eaten. Unfortunately only four of them worked.
Mike Downer, Cambridgeshire.

I see Paola called you a pig last week. There may be some physical resemblance and pigs are inclined to complain a lot. But sartorially they beat you hands down.
Edward Wheatley, Norfolk.

What were you thinking about with your consumption at Byfords last week? All the wrong things in all the wrong order and washed down with two milkshakes. Ugh! At this rate your tailor will be on double time extending your jackets again.
Glenda Brett-Holt, Malta.

As an ardent supporter of your puritanical attitude to punctuality, it was with some disappointment I witnessed, as a fellow diner, the late arrival of Dr Sharpenn's party (Winner's Letters, last week) at the Black Boys Inn near Henley. They arrived well after the cocktail hour. I'm sure my disappointment would be shared by equally punctilious foodies on the two-week waiting list.
Brian Mayo, Hampshire.

It's reassuring to hear the service at the Black Boys Inn remains in its current state - rude! But with generally highly polished cooking, degrees above the norm, in what is a culinary desert, while I sympathise with Dr Sharpenn, the side order of rudeness is neither here nor there compared to the food!
Jacqueline Weiss, Buckinghamshire.

You asked last week: where can one find good sausage rolls? The best are at the Maids of Honour, Kew Bridge Road, near Richmond. Try them and tell us what you think.
Steven Trembath, London.

You're always going on about water. I've just found a restaurant here with a water menu. Fifteen different kinds from all over the world. That's if you don't count your least favourite, Hildon. I'd love to show you around our island.
Michelle, Majorca.

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