In the late 1960s and early 70s, Skindles in Maidenhead was THE place to be seen if you were rich and famous. Regular visitors included Princess Margaret and Winston Churchill, and the venue also attracted famous bands of the time, such as Thin Lizzy and The Strawbs.
But that clearly didn’t faze the venue’s then manager Nino Besozzi. By then, the Italian-born hospitality professional had already met Hollywood legends Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth and Sophia Loren, during the five years he spent travelling through Europe, working as a waiter on the glamorous Orient Express.
So when the 1.00am closing time arrived at Skindles and Mick Jagger and his new wife Bianca were still partying, Nino promptly turned off the lights and music.
“We had a disagreement” he chuckled. “Bar times were very strict in those days and I was just doing my duty, but he ended up throwing a chair at me. I managed to avoid being hit, but it went through a window, so Jagger got the bill for replacing it!”
Not all of his encounters with the rich and famous were so dramatic though: he met Her Majesty the Queen on two occasions, when she visited Maidenhead for the historic Beating of the Bounds ceremony, and he organised childhood birthday parties for the current Duke of Westminster, whilst he was working at the family estate-owned Grosvenor Hotel in Chester.
It was all a far cry from Nino’s early years, growing up in a town near Lake Maggiore on the Italian/Swiss border, and having to go out to work as an apprentice baker at the age of 10 to support the family after his father died. “They were tough times,” he recalls.
At the age of 12 he was fined for working illegally under age in a bar. By 14 the Second World War had started and he went to work in a forge – but his heart clearly was always in hospitality so after the war, at 21, he went to Milan to work in a restaurant. “I wanted to be a waiter because in Italy it was seen as the best trade for improving yourself”.
It was while working in Milan that he saw the ad for waiters on the Orient Express –and got the job partly because he spoke French as well as Italian.
After five years on the iconic express train, Nino was keen to learn English, which was why he came to work at The Savoy in 1954, combining long hours in the restaurant with language lessons in his free time.
Over the years he became a valued member of the Grosvenor family estate staff, ultimately overseeing the major development of the Chester Savoy as joint General Manager.
It was when the time came for a change in the pace of his hectic life, that Nino headed for the Isle of Wight, to run the 25-bedroom Yelfs Hotel with a staff of 10. As MD of the Forte-owned hotel, he managed to turn it around to become the best of 200 hotels for profitability. But the long hours took their toll on his family life, with him not getting home until 10pm most nights.
So in 1984, he finally decided to launch into business in his own right, and took on the Bonchurch Inn as a family-run pub. At that time his son Adrian was ten and daughter Victoria was four – these days the siblings are partners in the business along with mum Gillian.
“The place was very dated but we hit the floor running when we got here,” says Adrian. “Dad was an Italian in an English village pub, and not many people thought it would work. It was difficult for a few years, but we stuck at it”.
What visitors love is the typically warm, Italian family atmosphere created by the Besozzis – and no matter what new dishes are featured on the menu, the hands-down favourites are always the classic lasagne and cannelloni that Nino has been making for years.
“Yes, our lasagne is known across the Island,” laughs Adrian. In fact it’s so popular that the family is planning to sell it as a ready meal option at Friday markets.
Meanwhile Nino continues to entertain pub-goers and diners at the Bonchurch Inn, with his colourful tales of high-end hospitality and glamorous movie stars.
“Dad comes from an age when you spent time with people, not the quick, profit-driven approach we see today.
“People love it when he’s in the bar – especially those in their 60s who remember him from the Yelf’s days. They always have plenty to talk about!