Published 12 July 1998 Style Magazine 261st article
Glass act: Luigi Camozzo, the owner of Ai Frati, in Murano, with Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)
After a Learjet trip to France I commented to Nick Probett of Chauffair, who's planning his own in-flight kitchen for catering, that it was odd to have soft, creamy cakes from Maison Blanc without any cutlery. All the pilot could find was one plastic spoon. So, on my next flight, to Venice, there was metal cutlery wrapped in a napkin. When opened, it all had British Airways stamped on it. This time the glasses were of plastic. Marwan Khalek, another jet supplier, who has no pretensions to run his own catering division, always manages proper glass. Anyway, they're both nice people and you can't expect everything.
When David Lossos - he whom the Cipriani staff didn't want to book into the Trattoria Da Romana - asked where I was dining, I said Osteria Da Fiore had been recommended to me. Apparently, The New York Times once named it among the five best restaurants in the world. Mr Lossos, pausing in the magnificent Cipriani pool as we swam, said: "I'll be interested to read what you think." The way he said it was not a recommendation.
Da Fiore is in a claustrophobic room with regency-stripe wallpaper, a low ceiling and no windows. The owner, Martin Maurizio, in a grey suit, looked like a Venetian banker. The male diners mostly wore suits, too. I don't think it hurts if the owner smiles when guests enter. Mr Maurizio obviously holds a different opinion.
The menu was all fish except for Parma ham. They didn't have bellinis, but recommended a white wine spritzer. It was awful. The freebie starter was baby shrimps, white polenta and zucchini. Polenta is the most over-rated stuff in the world. They selected some Tuscan wine, 1992, which came in a bottle with a black and red label that reminded me of Castle Dracula. Vanessa thought it was horrible, and she was right.
My main course was baked scallops with olive oil and thyme. I took a mouthful. It was so hot I couldn't taste anything. I reached for my water glass. Maurizio, passing by, said: "It's very hot, sir." "Bit late to tell me," I gasped.
I found it quite ordinary. I've had better scallops in my local Chinese. Vanessa had scallops, zucchini and green noodles. "Okay, but no great taste experience," she said. How this restaurant ever got into anyone's top five in the world I can't imagine.
By contrast, Ai Frati in Murano, the glass-blowing island, is in an old building with a deck overlooking the canal and the crumbling Palazzo da Mula. The view is wonderful and Gi-Gi, real name Luigi Camozzo, who owns it, a totally charming host. I had fried scampi and granzella, which is spider crab. I tried spaghetti with clams, and Vanessa had a mixed fish grill - the sort of thing they do particularly well around Venice. I thoroughly recommend it. They even make a very good light sponge cake with cream and jam and white chocolate on top. It's a place to go for lunch; not many people come out to the islands in the evening. Then, if 15 or more people reserve, Gi-Gi opens. If they don't, sensibly, he doesn't bother.
Even further away, although the boat - trip is very restful, is Restaurant Nani on San Pietro in Volta. This is an out-of-the way island with one old cathedral and a seaside square. It is legendary for its fish. My seafood starter of cold lobster, crab meat, different types of shrimps, sea eels, everything, was the best seafood starter I've ever had. It's a family business, famous in the area, and at weekends is packed with locals who come from all over. It's never touristy, except for me. And if you're clever, for you as well.
Which leaves Harry's Bar, still my favourite restaurant in the world. The Italians eat downstairs. Tourists mingle with locals six-deep around the bar, where Claudio makes the best bellinis on the planet; they were invented by Arrigo Cipriani's father. The tables are so close together you need to be a contortionist to get in. Next to me, 14 people crowded round a table that would have been okay for eight, but here it doesn't matter. Through it all, the white-clad waiters weave with dexterity. This room is genuinely chic, even though it has a linoleum floor and decor so plain I couldn't describe it. The food is the best ever. Harry Cipriano was away, but I met his daughter Joanna, who's very big on Italian television, and Carrado Alfonso manages it superbly.
Take these restaurants and the ones I mentioned two weeks ago. Unless you're planning a residential relocation, they should be enough for anyone.
It was with great appreciation that I read your reviews of Reid's Hotel, Madeira. They confirmed for me the fact that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Last year, we made a reservation for Christmas dinner and tea on New Year's Eve at the hotel. Both meals were dogged by irritations. At Christmas, we arrived to find someone still vacuuming the floor in the lounge - hardly very festive - then proceeded to have the dinner spoilt by the waiters' overeagerness to clear the tables. But it was the New Year's Eve tea that was most disappointing. We arrived early, hoping to stroll in the gardens, but were informed by the front desk that they were open to guests only. When tea came, we were presented with two tiny jars of jam and two small dishes of cream between four, only to be told rudely that "most people share" when we questioned if this was correct. These are not the standards one expects from establishment that advertises itself as "one of the world's top hotels".
Faye Armstrong, Dublin
On June 12, we booked a table for nine at Rhodes in the Square in London SW1, which had opened only the day before. To catalogue the errors and delays that ensued would fill too much space, but the worst was that Gary Rhodes himself sat at a nearby table, deep in conversation with a diner, taking no note of the muddle that reigned as chaos poured from his kitchen. While we appreciate that celebrity chefs revel in their PR chats, surely on the day after opening, this one should have spent at least some time in his kitchen during service?
Tony Porter, Bigbury-on-Sea, Devon