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No choice can be the right choice for a big cheese

Published 13 August 2006
News Review
682nd article

Michael with Benvenuto at the Locanda dell'Isola Comacina (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I like set menus. I particularly like them when there's only one set of food available and the restaurant has been doing it forever.

The only choice at one of my favourite places in the world, La Chaumiere on the Grand Corniche near Nice, is between beef and lamb - or chicken, which has to be ordered in advance. It's all grilled on the open fire. It's fantastic. Of course, there's a lot of pre and post main course stuff too.

The Locanda dell'Isola Comacina, on an island in Lake Como, has been doing the same set menu since 1947. I guess they must have got it right by now.

The current owner is Benvenuto Puricelli. I had a blazing row with him when I first visited 10 years ago. I didn't like the table he offered, or his attitude. I wanted to eat outside. He said they weren't serving outside. So I stormed off in a tantrum. Benvenuto followed me, we made up, he gave me a lovely exterior table and Vanessa and I had a marvellous meal.

Benvenuto phones me from time to time when he comes to London. He greeted me on my daily walk up the beach in Barbados last Christmas. He was staying a few hotels away from Sandy Lane.

I recently visited the Comacina for the second time. Benvenuto had reserved a perfect table overlooking the pine covered hills and the tiny lakeside village of Masala.

You can only get to Comacina by boat. There's a ferry from Masala or you come, as Geraldine and I did, while travelling on Lake Como.

Benvenuto explained, "A man who was a fascist, a captain under Mussolini, ran to this island to hide and then opened the restaurant." Benvenuto's had it for a very long time. He wears tartan for some complex reason, which he explained and I instantly forgot.

At the end of the meal he rings a cowbell to get attention, then tells the story of the island. This was in Italian so it meant nothing to me!

The food is fantastic. The setting, totally historic. We started with an enormous bread roll and tomato with a piece of lemon on top. Then a vegetable selection - celery, courgette, tomato, zucchini, carrots, beans, chicory. All superb.

Then an enormous prosciutto ham either from Praga or called Praga. I know it was Praga something or other. Also dried beef bresaola. Then an incredible dish which I've never had before. A whole onion baked, so it turns out sweet. That is delicious. Plus warm beetroot. Followed by fresh trout grilled over charcoal.

Then free-range chicken open and crushed and fried in an iron pot with oil and served with salad. Then from an enormous block, some parmigiano reggiano cheese followed by a dessert of oranges sliced at the table with an ice cream called fior di vaniglia. Ending with cabaret and coffee. It's all very touristy. But it works.

We stumbled on another delightful lakeside place, the Nilus bar in Varenna. Giovanni Melesi has owned it for 16 years.

You sit right by the water on the edge of a pretty and totally unspoilt village. There are boats bobbing about, little clouds over the mountains opposite. It's idyllic. Flowers in urns everywhere. As it must have been in the 1930s or earlier.

I had a great pizza. Geraldine had crepes with artichoke and asparagus. Then I had chocolate and walnut ice cream. You can eat posh stuff there, but why bother?

As I was dictating my views a lady from Cheshire with a rucksack came over and asked, "Is this the BBC? Are you doing a book?"

"I'm just a poor tourist on holiday," I replied.

"So I won't see you on television?" she said, disappointed.

Earlier we'd been very touristy and taken photos of George Clooney's lakeside villa. I generously offer these to Sunday Times readers at £575.38 for a 7in x 5in print. You can have the villa with me in the foreground, with Geraldine in the foreground or on its own. The price (credit cards not accepted) includes postage and packing.

Hurry while stocks last.

  • An American, Dan McAlinden of Granada Hills, California, was first of the few to guess correctly why Marie Helvin brushed her hands against her bosoms prior to taking our photo outside Lucio.

    He e-mailed: "She palmed her breasts in order to stimulate her nipples." I think Marie believed she was to be in the photo. So she did the old actress and model trick of charging up the nipples so they'd look better photographically.

    I watched some of the most famous actresses in the world do that for decades.

    Well, it passes the time, doesn't it?

    Winner's letters

    Last week while crossing a busy central London street my girlfriend was delighted when a smart Bentley, driven by a white-haired gent, stopped to let her pass. You've now risen in her estimation from a pompous old man who knows nothing about food to being a pompous old man who knows nothing about food and who drives his own car. I still think you're fantastic. And clearly have a "good eye" - as she was wearing a very short skirt!
    Simon Burton, London

    I, too, received the touting letter from the anonymous managing director of Hildon water sent to "selected individuals", which you mentioned last week. Wow! Me and Michael Winner! Did anyone else get one?
    Renny Snell, Surrey

    I'm amused by readers who get worked up at Michael's pompous/self-promotion articles. Don't they realise the wind-up is deliberate and all part of what makes Winner's Dinners entertaining and unique? He's occasionally a little unkind, but I think generally fair. Can the man help his appearance?
    Michael Waugh, Kensington

    Money, we're told, doesn't necessarily make one happy. Mr Winner is rich, yet in the photos he's never smiling. The restaurant staff are. Maybe because Michael said, "Your service and food don't meet my high standards, so I'll not be coming back!"
    Colin Taylor, Ilford

    We were disrupted at dinner by a family with two badly behaved children who ruined the pleasure of our meal! The restaurant owners were far from happy with this lack of parental control. Could you form a charity, with the help of national lottery funds, to safeguard the ambience and tranquillity expected by the older generation when out on a romantic evening?
    J M Pinney, Ibiza, Spain

    I compliment you on last week's review of the Wellington in Welwyn. Since its change of ownership my wife and I have made the pilgrimage every Friday night and never had a bad meal. Can't say the same for your recent recommendation of the Brocket Arms, Ayot St Lawrence. They're now unable to cope with the extra trade you generated. The food is awful and expensive. Last weekend the lunch menu was removed after 15 minutes due to lack of staff!
    John Sillars, Hertfordshire