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I'm happy to take over where Mussolini left off

Published 12 April 2009
News Review
821st article

Michael with Stefano Baiocco, left, and Markus Odermatt (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I'm always being asked, "What's the best restaurant/hotel/country/dog/sexual experience/hat/insult/flower . . . ?" You get my drift. Answer: there's no better hotel anywhere than Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda, in northern Italy, reasonably unspoilt. The lake and hotel, that is. Not me.

It's a stunning mansion taken over by Mussolini (his mistress had a gaff down the road) in the final years of the second world war. Eventually Il Duce tried to escape to Switzerland, only to be caught, then shot and strung up. Pity, really. I have a photo of him on my mantelpiece. He's sitting in an open car with a tiger cub. It's next to a fetching postcard of Hitler. I didn't really want Mussolini, but a lady film producer, seeing I had two photos of Hitler, assumed I was a raging fascist and one more dictator might cheer me up.

Before I get another batch of letters from north London accusing me of gross anti-semitism, may I speak in my defence, Your Honour, and point out I also display two postcards of Winston Churchill. These great opponents remind me of the war I lived through where good and evil battled it out and the good guys won. Although looking round our country today I wonder, "What did we win?"

From meaningful thoughts to the lapping Lake Garda undulating gently beneath my balcony. My junior suite, best room in the hotel, had antique furniture, fantastic view, marvellous ceiling painted with angels, flowers and cherubs, but, being a "junior" suite, only one room.

It offered a grotesque oil painting of a horrid, fat child with rouge, lipstick and stunted legs. One of the worst paintings I've ever seen. Markus Odermatt, the excellent Swiss general manager, told me it was Giangiacomo Feltrinelli at a young age. If he reached maturity looking like that Jackie should have jumped in the lake with a lead weight round his waist.

Why is this hotel so marvellous? Stunning location, immaculate grounds, swimming pool set in lawns leading down to the lake, superb food, eccentric restaurant manager. Peter Eisendle has a habit of talking to furniture. He spends too much time chatting to his favourite guests when he should be looking round the room to see what other diners, such as me, might need.

Stefano Baiocco is the chef. I rate him very highly. I can't be bothered to tell you what I ate, because I'm in a stupid mood. One dish was historic, indeed stratospheric - the milk crepe filled with low-fat yoghurt, ginger and lavender syrup. Sounds ghastly. I ordered it endlessly. It's a fluffy masterpiece with a delightful taste of ginger. Markus recommended it - "There are no calories," he explained.

Geraldine noticed the tablecloths had ridges in them. At La Reserve de Beaulieu, another great hotel, the cloths are ironed on the table. "They have a very long lead," said Geraldine. "I saw them ironing." I suggested Markus did the same, but I don't think he rushed out to buy an iron.

They also had a strange habit of putting buck's fizz in a high-stemmed cocktail glass. It ain't a cocktail, fellas. I'm niggling now, which is unfair. The Villa Feltrinelli is a fantastic experience. Make a reservation at once. Go.

  • In any restaurant, however good, someone at each meal service will get a bum deal. I adore the Wolseley. Cheerful, buzzy, excellent food.

    Ace photographer Terry O'Neill told me, "Try the cheeseburger." I ordered one medium rare. It came red, raw, unpleasant. Not wishing to make a fuss - "You, not make a fuss? Unbelievable," I hear you exclaim. Well, I didn't.

    The following Sunday I said to the waitress, "I had a raw cheeseburger last week. I want to be sure we understand things. I'd like, please, my hamburger cooked with only a tiny bit of pink in the middle." I was served a slab of raw mince. When touched with my fork, blood spurted out. It was like a remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I sent it back.

    "What's happening in the kitchen?" I asked the waitress. "Chef having a breakdown?" I ended up with a main course of smoked salmon. I pointed this out politely to Christopher Corbin, co-owner and nattily dressed gent.

    "Hamburgers aren't a precise science," he said.

    "Not precise?" I expostulated. "Between cooked and raw is nothing to do with precise. It's an abyss."

    The next Sunday (we Scorpios are very persistent) the restaurant manager, Robert Holland, was on. He'd heard of the MW cheeseburger crisis.

    "Robert," I said, "stand over them in the kitchen. It's up to you to save the day." He did. A first-rate, perfectly cooked cheeseburger arrived, with fried egg on top and extra gherkins. I'll definitely order one again. "Don't," I hear the Wolseley staff screaming. Calm down, dears, it's only a cheeseburger.

  • PS: Chatted recently at the Wolseley with Annie Lennox, Tom Stoppard, Michael Gambon and Alvin Stardust. I last saw Alvin, real name Bernard Jewry, when I directed him in a movie in 1962. Then he was Shane Fenton and the Fentones.

    Charming man, lovely wife, delightful eight-year-old daughter. Still warbling, touring, making a bob or two. Good for him.

    Michael's missives

    Dr Buckley wrote that the cure for water on your brain was an enema. Surely it would be a tap on the head, which I'm sure Grant MacPherson would be willing to apply!
    Nick Jones, Le Crestet, France

    I was interested to read your piece on the Ivy Club. To paraphrase Groucho Marx: I wouldn't join a club that had you as a member.
    Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire

    At Marco Pierre White's restaurant Lanes about three tables were occupied on Saturday night. The starters were average, I've had many better steaks, the crème brulee was poor. Marco joined a large group, whereupon the waiters concentrated just on him. He lit up cigarettes without regard for other customers. I won't be eating in his restaurants again, nor will I watch Hell's Kitchen.
    Emma Holland, Essex

    While in Venice we kept our eyes peeled for celebrities. On the Cipriani hotel motor launch I glimpsed your unmistakable profile as you stood in the bow. I trilled triumphantly, "There's Michael Winner!" My husband responded dejectedly, "Yes, but why do we never see anyone famous?"
    Helen Emsley, Harrogate

    Now that your lifetime as a confirmed bachelor has finally come to an end and you've belatedly "come out", may I wish you and Barry McKay the best of luck in your new life together. He'll need it!
    Clive Burton, 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