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Unchanged and unspoilt - till I turned up there

Published 30 August 2009
News Review
841st article

Michael outside Gianni Franzi with, from left, Zeljko Vujicevic, Angelo Sforza and Alessandro Cavazzuti (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

The world gets uglier every day. More ghastly houses, more monstrous office buildings, more fields, woods and ponds covered with concrete. Wherever I go, I see two views. The current one, which is usually obscene, and the one I used to see, which was beautiful.

Nice airport was a hut. Behind it were vineyards and farmhouses with crinkly tiles. Now there are endless high-rise apartments, hotels and convention centres. My own street was full of beautiful Victorian houses, all built by famous artists using new and innovative materials and designs. After the second world war everyone wanted to go forward. Old buildings were pulled down, hideous rubbish put up. Most of the grand mansions in my street are gone. Replaced by tat.

Portofino, near Genoa, appears much as it always did. Until you look closely. Then, where they used to make fishing nets or sell freshly caught fish, there's Dolce & Gabbana, Loro Piana, Brioni - the detritus of the super-rich. Oversized yachts dwarf the harbour. However, if you go south on a boat (one-hour journey) or a train, or a long hike, you get to Cinque Terre, five coastal villages. The best of them is Vernazza. This is really unchanged. No boutiques, no jewellery displayed behind unbreakable glass. Just laundry hanging from lines below the windows, crumbling multicoloured exteriors of untouched 19th-century buildings, an exquisite little harbour, high hills with vineyards, a lovely old church.

The food at Gianni Franzi, which looks like an ordinary trattoria, is beyond belief. Lady Ruth Rogers, chef and co-owner of the River Cafe, comes regularly to work and learn in Gianni's kitchens. She had her son's 21st birthday there. The location is on the harbour in a lovely little square facing the sea.

The bread was crisp and fresh. Gianni was away. A handsome young man, Alessandro Cavazzuti, served us.

"Are you Gianni's son?" I asked.

"No, I'm a long son," Alessandro replied. "Tiny village - we're all related somehow or another."

Our starter was fried fish balls, stuffed fried anchovies, breaded and fried anchovies, cheese croquettes, squid, I could go on. All incredible.

A little band was playing in the square. One woman played the flute, another the tambourine, a man an accordion. They were so good that when they came round with the hat I gave them €20. Alessandro said they were Croatian. Shortly after I'd coughed up €20, a policewoman, with long blonde hair and high heels, started a ruck. The band argued; the policewoman persisted. She sent them away. Lucky for the band she came after the collection and not before it. I should have given the policewoman the €20. Then the band could have played for a year.

My taped notes reveal: "The meal continued with ravioli stuffed with baccala, stuffed with cod and is made in the black ink of the squid so it's black ravioli." Figure that out. I can't. Then pasta, potato and beans with pesto. "This is real pesto. They made it this morning," said Geraldine. At least one of us knows about food. Dessert was chocolate mousse, bavarese with citron and a panna cotta. Totally marvellous.

This place is more than a gem: it's the crown jewels plus. The cooks are Angelo Sforza, an Italian, and Zeljko Vujicevic, a Croatian. I was told Zeljko organised the kitchen. As for the other one, Alessandro fluttered his hands around his head as if to say, "The Italian is rather Italian." Whatever. They produce food that's beyond historic. Not many do that.

  • Last week I told of Fiona Gooley, who paid Kensington and Chelsea council £720 for the honour of applying for a licence to keep four chairs and two tables on the pavement outside her little restaurant. This is the council I once successfully sued for libel. I got an apology in the High Court, my costs and damages for charity. It had the bailiffs send an open letter saying they were coming to take my furniture because I hadn't paid office rates on my room in Kensington High Street. Which I had. Within a week of receiving its demand.

    I also have friendly times with the council. I'm leaving it my house as a museum. Can't get much friendlier than that, can you? Currently I'm extremely annoyed with the council. A plan has gone in to put up three gross blocks of flats next to the abandoned Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park. These would dwarf Melbury Court, which they'd be next to, and tower over the road I live in.

    Enough new flats have been erected in the royal borough to overcrowd and spoil the landscape. Is the council working for property developers rather than residents? Only good thing about the new scheme is that Sir Terence Conran wants to move his Design Museum to the Commonwealth Institute. English Heritage came out fiercely against that, as it means altering the interior. Who cares? How could EH put a grade II* listing on that blue monstrosity? Same high rating as my house. Except my house deserves it. I deserve a grade I* rating. Who will give it to me?

    Michael's missives

    Finally you are using your talent for the betterment of mankind. Political correctness is bringing Britain to its knees. Please keep speaking out about this.
    Paul Bloomberg, California, USA

    Further to your well-observed comments on ageism, has it ever occurred to Selina Scott to wonder why she got the job in the first place?
    Richard Young, London

    Haven't Selina Scott and other celebrities who want to hang onto jobs they've been doing for decades heard of the phrase "retiring gracefully"?
    Mike Donovan, Carmarthenshire

    So, disappointed with Fiskars scissors, you decided to ban them from your underwear. Very wise. At least you can't be accused of cutting off your pecker to spite your face.
    Bryan Craker, Peyrins, France

    We waited more than an hour for pasta on a set menu at Le Tambourin in Collioure, France. It seemed to be reheated; it was tepid and disgusting. When we complained, the owner was so rude we decided to leave before the dessert, refusing to pay for the pasta. The owner called the police, who said as we'd tasted the pasta we had to pay for it!
    Dossy Moore, Hertfordshire

    At least you were wearing a decent-looking jacket in last week's photo outside W8 Catering. But why were the sleeves so long? Or have your arms shrunk?
    Shauna Simpson, 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