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I won't put myself in someone else's hands on my birthday

Published 6 November 2005
News Review
643rd article

The guests at Michael's 70th birthday party included: (back row, from left) Leslie Bricusse, Terry O'Neill, John Gold, Roger Moore, Michael Caine, and seated next to Michael, Andrew Lloyd Webber (Dinah May)

People always say, "You can't judge places, you get special treatment!" Oh yeah. Listen to this. It was my 70th birthday last Sunday. "Not possible," you exclaim, "you look so young!"

Never mind that. I decided to fly 30 of my nearest and dearest to Venice. Out on Saturday, dinner at my favourite place, Harry’s Bar, lunch Sunday at Trattoria Da Romano on Burano. Fly back that afternoon. Paola, who speaks Italian, called Barbaro Orazio, owner of the Romano, weeks in advance to book for lunch.

Nine days before the trip my assistant, Dinah May, and I went to Venice to organise. I had to allocate rooms for major stars, see the dining areas. That sort of thing.

The Hotel Cipriani stayed open just for us. We were in their Palazzo Vendramin and the Palazzetto, two fantastic buildings over the water from St Mark's Square. I gave the greatest suite to Michael and Shakira Caine. They said they'd never stayed anywhere better. Dr Natale Rusconi, the hotel's managing director, was urbane, witty and helpful as ever.

On Thursday it was pouring with rain. Being British, Dinah and I stood, windswept and battered, in the front of the launch for the half-hour trip to Burano. At the Romano, the owner, Barbaro, kissed me. His assistant said: "Mr Orazio is giving you this special room."

"I didn't ask for a room!" I spluttered. We were shown a room behind the restaurant, so ghastly I wouldn’t store dead cats there. One small window, with net curtains, faced a wall.

"That's no good," I said walking to the front of the restaurant, "we want to sit here." My choice overlooked the picturesque street.

"We have a wedding, 85 people," explained the assistant. My supposed friend, Barbaro Orazio, never mentioned that when I booked. That wasn't special treatment. That was a stab in the back. So at 4.30pm on Thursday, 10 days before the event - and we were leaving lunchtime on Friday - Dinah and I stood in Burano in pouring rain!

I considered Nani in San Pietro in Volta. There’s no better seafood anywhere. But it's well over an hour by boat from Venice. Too far. We set off at dusk for the Cipriani hotel. The lagoon and the sky were grey. Lights twinkled on the distant silhouette of Venice.

One of the guests invited to the party was Joan Collins. Her husband had never been to Venice. "Percy won't know what's hit him," said Dinah admiring the scenic beauty. "Since he’s not getting any bloody lunch he certainly won't!" I responded.

That night we dined at Trattoria Alla Madonna, an excellent fish place near the Rialto Bridge. It's very buzzy, typically Venetian. They agreed to close most of the front room for us.

On Friday we checked out Locanda Cipriani, on the pastoral island of Torcello. It's a stunning place. I should have thought of it earlier. We met the manager, Bonifacio Brass. He's the son of Tinto Brass, the film director, and the sister of Arrigo Cipriani of Harry's Bar.

This was much better than the one in Burano I'd first chosen. A lovely garden faced two historic old churches. A prettier place altogether.

So remember, check everything. Leave nothing to chance. If I hadn't come on a reconnaissance my guests would have been distraught. I'd have been suicidal.

Last Sunday, in bright sunshine, we glided down the Grand Canal in four launches. Everyone photographed everyone. The group included Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Chris Rea, The Cipriani organised brilliantly. Our luggage was whisked away at the airport, and arrived, all correctly, in our rooms before we even got there!

Dinner at Harry's Bar was triple historic. Arrigo closed off the first floor, never done before, and gave us delicious local baby shrimps with olive oil, then ravioli with white truffles from Alba, then a choice of sole, liver or veal piccata. All served with unbelievable efficiency. The finale was crepes patissier with vanilla ice cream. The speeches were funny and touching.

Next day's lunch was at Locanda Cipriani. Musicians played in the garden. We ate a fantastic tuna fish tartar with purée of salt cod, salad of baby scampi and "sarde in saor Venetian style". Followed by home-made tagliardi with poreini mushrooms and then turbot, liver or osso buco.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, who knows much more about food than me (who doesn't?) insisted the chef, Renato Ceccato, came out so we could applaud. To end we had cake. I summoned the strength to blow out one candle. Michael Caine said in his speech: "It doesn’t get better than this." It would if I could be 21 again!

Winner's letters

How could you be so critical last week of St John's Wood? It's a wonderful place to live. The reason you were irritated by locals of the Jewish faith talking to John Gold was because they obviously preferred to talk to him rather than you.
Edward Kerner, St John's Wood

You said you were unconvinced John Gold knew any gentiles. He knows me and my father. We're both gentiles.
Gary Miller-Cheevers, London

Posing outside the Wine Gallery last week, you and your two chums looked like the stars of an American television remake of Last of the Summer Wine.
Alan Rhodes, Nottinghamshire

Glad to see you last week with Terry O'Neill, a photographer I greatly admire. Ask him to take a decent photo of you for the Royal Barbados Police Force. Where were you on the night of October 25, 2005? My Barbados home was broken into. My builder confronted a white man loading my possessions onto a Suzuki Grand Vitara, a vehicle you admit to own. l know we disagree on food and Sandy Lane but I didn't think you bore a grudge. A photo might help the police eliminate you from their inquiries.
Marvin Pryce-Jones, Barbados

There used to be many suggestions for blocking Michael Schumacher's dominance of Formula One. He should have been forced to tow a caravan. He should have been directed to the local filling station to refuel. But you had the answer and revealed it last week. He should have beer made simply to pit stop for a Brinkley's cottage pie during each race.
Barry Kane, Nottingham

I've warmed to old geezer Winner recently. It's edifying for members of the proletariat to glimpse how the moneyed and privileged live and to learn about restaurants we'll never visit. He never mentions Coventry, does he? if St John's Wood is the furthest north he’ll go, then we've no chance. As for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he probably imagines you need breathing apparatus that far north.
Kathryn Gregory, Coventry

I was on the verge of writing to Rachel's Dairy to complain about their packaging of organic milk. But you did it for me last week so I don't have to.
Julia Edwards, Oxfordshire

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