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I'm the only guide you'll need for eating in Venice

Published 5 October 2008
News Review
794th article

Michael with chef Bruno Gavagnin and co-owner Luca di Vita at Alle Testiere (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

In Venice for 40 days around and including August, and usually from January 10 to February 20, there's no fishing allowed in the lagoon to preserve the stock of small molluscs and flat fish. Last year the Venice carnival was early so all those sorts of fish had to be imported.

I said to Luca, "Do you keep fish in your deep freeze?"

He replied, "We don't have one."

Luca di Vita is host and co-owner of Alle Testiere, a tiny 22-seat restaurant tucked away somewhere. No, not Golders Green. In a Venetian back street. It's one of my all-time favourite places.

It was recommended by Lady Ruth ("call me Ruthie") Rogers, co-owner of the River Cafe, also not in Golders Green. Or Venice. It's in Hammersmith. Ridiculous place for a brilliant restaurant. It reopens tomorrow after considerable tarting up.

At Alle Testiere the chef, Bruno Gavagnin, provided me with deep-fried soft shell crab, which had been marinated in white vinegar and olive oil for three hours. Geraldine had gnocchi with scallops and fresh peas.

Then I had ravioli with burata and basil and fresh tomato sauce followed by prawns in spicy sauce with olive oil, vinegar and marsala. It was all totally, 102%, multi-historic. I finished with chocolate and liquorice ice cream with caramelised apple pie.

I was further delighted because the noisy child at the next table was taken out into the alley by the mother while hubby ate. Then hubby took him out while the wife ate. British parents please note and do the same.

Venice has suffered a dreadful lack of customers this year. Suits me. I like fewer people.

Keep this advice, preserve it for when you go to Venice. Try the Locanda Cipriani on the island of Torcello. Rustic and fantastic. Owner is the son of movie director Tinto Brass.

Then there's Harry's Bar, Arrigo Cipriani's place on the Venetian waterfront. This remains, in my not humble view, the best restaurant in the world. Be sure to sit downstairs where the buzz is.

Da Celeste on Pellestrina, a distant island, is for the locals. Only Italians there when I went. Another fantastic fish restaurant is Nani, on an even further away island called San Pietro in Volta.

By the Rialto Bridge is Trattoria Alla Madonna, that's worth a visit. Luca said the Black Cat on Burano (the island for supposedly local lace, most of it made in Japan) was marvellous. I trust Luca. The Burano one I used to go to, Da Romano, is useless now. Luca observed, "It's mostly weddings."

My favourite Venetian hotel is the Cipriani. It gets its name from Arrigo's father who co-founded it. Then it was sold to the Orient-Express group. To say there's bad blood between Arrigo and the Cipriani hotel is putting it mildly.

My 70th birthday guests stayed at the Cipriani. They couldn't use the enormous swimming pool because it was October.

Now things are changing. The distinguished and superb long-serving general manager, Natale Rusconi, has retired. Maurizio Saccani (worst letter writer in the world) has taken over. He assures me that when they close on October 26 he'll be dealing with the dirty, bloodstained carpet and fraying curtains in the James Sherwood suite, where I stay.

There are stories of mass staff resignations since Maurizio appeared. So what? If true, it's not unusual when a new man comes in if some of the old guard are ruffled.

I congratulate Maurizio on dropping the ludicrous dress code where, in the boiling heat of a Venetian summer, dining room guests sitting outside and sweltering had to wear a jacket.

I'm less amused by Maurizio's plans to close the pool restaurant and enlarge the peaceful little dining area by the lagoon. That's where I eat. I don't want more people around me during lunch. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," I say. But then what do I know? "Very little," I hear you chant.

One thing I know for sure is that the immaculately preserved sea front around La Reserve de Beaulieu on the Cote d'Azur (one of the two best hotels in Europe) faces desecration. A developer plans to knock down the next-door hotel Metropole, a lovely 1892 building, and put up a modern apartment block with three floors of underground parking. This will destroy one of the most beautiful areas in France.

The noise and dust will force La Reserve to close for three years. So Jean Claude Delion, the owner, says he'll have to sell the place he's nurtured for decades. I'm writing to President Sarkozy, the Pope, the Chief Rabbi, Paul Daniels and that woman who keeps having her bosoms pumped up and writes bestselling books. If that lot can't get things put right, what has the world come to?

  • PS: Who's speaking at the Cambridge University Union this Friday? Me. This follows sold-out dates at the Oxford Union and the National Film Theatre. Make a detour.

    Michael's latters

    I'm in the depths of depression after reading of your disgusting treatment by Amex. I've had no sleep. My wife had to stop me throwing myself out of the bedroom window. I can't stop crying. Please sort it out so my life can return to an even keel. What is the world coming to? Who cares about global warming, hamburgers and economic problems?
    Michael Stern, London

    Golders Green is not the north. That starts when the grouse to clog ratio exceeds 1. Keep up the good work. I love the Quentin Crisp meets mother from Psycho look.
    Ian Walton, Lancashire

    In last week's photo you looked like a koala bear. I've heard they can be vicious little bastards and are only really docile when stuffed. Spot any similarities?
    Bryan Craker, Peyrins, France

    How appalling that your outrageously lovely PA, Ruby Snape, went home on the tube smelling like a hamburger. Surely a man who spends over £50,000 a month on his Amex card could afford a taxi for her? Please inform this delectable London goddess I'll be happy to pick her up any night of the week, whether she smells like a burger or anything else.
    Robert Hughes, Surrey

    Prisoner Tim Gower's letter last week is historic. He should be awarded immediate Gastronomic Probation.
    Gillian Royale, London

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