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All decked out for what was a perfect Italian meal

Published 11 October 2009
News Review
847th article

Adriano at the front, next to his mother, Maria Damiani, with Michael in the background (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

My idea of a great restaurant is where Mama cooks in the kitchen and Junior is in charge out front. Thus it is at Lido di Adriano Gramatica on Lake Garda in the village of Gargnano, population 1,000. Mama is 74, Adriano somewhat less.

"He's gorgeous," said Geraldine. I'd like to say that put me off Adriano, but he's so pleasant and the food so good it didn't.

The place is right on the lake. It's always full of Italians. Since we're in Italy, this is a good sign.

Adriano didn't have fish carpaccio because it was Sunday lunch and he couldn't buy any that day. Anyone else would have put it in the deep freeze for 10 years and then served it as "fresh".

Lake Garda is unspoilt by modern rubbish buildings. It's famous for the incredibly good hotel Villa Feltrinelli, once the home of Mussolini.

I often sneak out to Adriano for a simple meal. Spaghetti is the only thing he buys in. The rest - taglialini, gnocchetti, tortelloni - are all made in Mama's kitchen. Her name is Maria Damiani. Never mind yer Gordon Ramsays. She's the best.

I started with raw beef sliced with finely cut parmesan cheese, olive oil and rocket salad. Then steak tartare, then fish from the lake - perch, grilled, seasoned with pesto, parsley, garlic and olive oil and a drop of white wine. It was the tastiest white fish I've ever eaten.

Adriano makes the desserts, I had an apple cake, semifreddo with amaretto and chocolate cake with pear. In the same village there's La Tortuga, a ghastly restaurant with a Michelin star. Shows what rubbish Michelin can be. Adriano is a million times better and he's not even in the guide. I hate to reveal these gems because you might go there. But my sense of duty is boundless.

  • It's a long way from Adriano's simplicity to Simon Cowell's lavish 50th birthday party at Wrotham Park, the stately home where I filmed one of my esure commercials. Four hundred guests walked through the mansion to an enormous marquee where cocktail waiters wore Simon Cowell masks.

    The catering, by Lucy Gemmell of Rhubarb, was superb. Simon's admirable menu was: prawn and lobster cocktail, chicken soup, shepherd's and cottage pies or fish and chips with mushy peas, apple pie, bread and butter pudding, rice pudding, custard and fresh cream. That was great.

    Not so the over-amplified music, which prevented me from speaking to the distinguished people on my table. Otherwise it was a terrific "do", organised by Sir Philip and Tina Green with party professional Julian Posner of Banana Split.

    When I first met Simon he was so obscure even his mother had trouble recognising him. She's Julie, 84 - the real star of the family. I liked her son Nicholas's speech. Only a much-loved brother could get away with it.

    Simon made a terrible speech at Nicholas's wedding - I know, I was there. Nicholas announced, "This is my revenge." Welcoming guests on behalf of the Cowell family, he said: "Some of you have travelled over water - Battersea, Barnes and many from the Isle of Dogs - and I'm not referring to Simon's past girlfriends.

    "In the 1950s Simon's favourite was Liberace. After the bed-wetting stage, at the age of eight, Simon discovered his first true love, Mr Rumbold, the PE teacher. He loved Rolf Harris and would sing Two Little Boys over and over again. He still loves two little boys to this day.

    "We lived in the countryside where Simon was fascinated by elves, goblins and especially fairies. In his teenage years his favourite TV star was Larry Grayson. In the 1980s he favoured the Pet Shop Boys.

    "He had a job as fashion consultant for Topshop but was fired by the boss's wife for experimenting with the ladies' lingerie.

    "Simon found his first real girlfriend on the web. On the day they met he couldn't believe Terry was a girl's name as well."

    Funny stuff. Followed by Sir Philip, who referred to Simon's well-known inability to turn up on time. "I'm getting you a birthday present," he said. "Big Ben."

  • Great news from Sandy Lane, Barbados.Their dreadful chef, Grant MacPherson is out. His replacement is Conny Anderson, who's been executive chef at Four Seasons resort hotels. Thus ends a sad era at one of my favourite hotels. It can now return to former glory.

    I agree with reader Darren Johns who writes: "It's depressing to see Andrew Headley - the undisputed worst restaurant manager in the world - still running Bajan Blue. He'd struggle to run a bath." I've written about that. Perhaps now Grant MacPherson's gone, management will turn to Headley.

  • There's hope for the Winner talking doll. Peter Wood of esure is giving him to a professional toy-testing place. If they certificate me safe, I'll be let loose.

    Michael's missives

    Driving to Oxford I spotted a huge lorry of Hildon water. I wasn't sure if this was the one you liked, or did not. I let its tyres down anyway.
    Peter Jones, Oxfordshire

    You said guests at John Cleese's birthday party were a load of old scruffs. I suspect Nicole Farhi may object. I too was a guest. As a keen supporter of Oxfam I had no objection. You set the tone by wearing pyjamas. My fellow vagrants agreed it was a splendid occasion. Your house was the grandest soup kitchen we've ever been admitted to.
    Martin Davies, Bristol

    Can you recommend a place for my 69.9th birthday party? My 70th is later at McDonald's in Rotherham. I'm about to divorce my wife and give her £20. She'll find out if she reads this. All my friends are scruffy, except for my 20-year-old girlfriend. If we could dine at your house it would give me a chance to meet someone I've admired for years. Geraldine.
    Tim Burton, Berkshire

    You should avoid the transport offered by La Reserve de Beaulieu. It may turn out to be a tumbril driven by M Defarge masquerading as Gerard, the indolent poolman. It would be understandable, after having endured your aristocratic pretensions and the grotesque sight of your half-naked body oiled up like the fatted calf, if Gerard was driven crazy, rolled out the guillotine and yelled, "Off with his head!"
    Robert Sandall, 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