Why Harry's Bar in Venice is an Italian Landmark

The inimitable Arrigo Cipriani, a year older than his eponymous restaurant, Harry's Bar.

© REDA&CO

The inimitable Arrigo Cipriani, a year older than his eponymous restaurant, Harry's Bar.

© REDA&CO

The original Harry’s Bar in Venice withstands the passage of time with inimitable grace. The enigmatic etched glass door, a few steps from St. Mark’s Square, is a landmark. Harry’s Bar is the epitome, encapsulation and the essence of the American Century. Elegant, yet informal; stiffly starched and yet relaxed; Harry’s Bar is where foreigners come to feel like locals and Venetians feel like they are abroad, where expats from countries that no longer exist feel at home, and boring people are made to feel like movie stars. The list is long and illustrious of those who return habitually to the small, low tables to drink the familiar cocktails and while away the hours: amongst clandestine lovers, spoiled rich kids, ladies of a certain age with their pugs, gigolos and cuckolds, minor royalty and their imposters, muses and impresarios, disinherited heiresses and other regulars.

The Bellini cocktail, based on white peach purée and Prosecco, was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani in 1948. 

© Mauritius

Bravery and Bellinis

Harry’s Bar is for tourists too, though only the bravest venture here. Unknown visitors are welcomed by white-jacketed waiters and reverentially ushered in without the need for a reservation. They are offered a Bellini at the bar and find, almost miraculously, if that ritual goes well, that there is a table prepared for them if they want to continue the experience. Harry’s Bar is for those undeterred by brusque formality, whose thirst extends to imbibing strictly observed, unwritten and unspoken rules, who have an appetite unfazed by the prospect of paying outrageous prices for food widely reputed to be terrible, but turns out to be rather wonderful. Harry’s Bar is its own universe, more a state of mind than a place, with a living tradition unique to itself.

Ernest Hemingway was a Harry’s Bar regular for decades.

© Arici Graziano/APA

Harry and Arrigo

Harry’s Bar opened on May 13, 1931. As owner Arrigo Cipriani says, “if all the customers who later said they were there on the opening day had been there, it would have had to have been as big as St. Mark’s.” Arrigo, which is Italian for Harry, was named after Harry’s Bar, not the other way round. Harry’s Bar was founded by Arrigo’s father, Giuseppe Cipriani. According to legend, in 1929, when Giuseppe Cipriani was working as a barman at Hotel Europa, one of his customers confessed he had been left stranded in Venice without a cent. Giuseppe Cipriani lent him money and two years later the customer, Henry Pickering, came back, returned the loan, and offered Giuseppe Cipriani the money to start his own bar, which of course was called Harry’s Bar.

Giuseppe’s wife, Giulietta, found the perfect spot: a former rope warehouse in a dead-end street. At the time, there was no bridge yet to connect it to St. Mark’s Square, so customers could not just pass by – they would have to come on purpose. The original décor was designed by another one of Giuseppe’s customers, Baron Giovanni Rubin de Cervin, director of the Naval Museum, who also drew the logo of a barman that is engraved on the glasses, stamped on the dishes and embroidered on the napkins. Giuseppe himself designed the three-legged tables and chose small chairs and cutlery to fit with the proportions of the room. “My father was a genius of simplicity,” explains Arrigo. “Luxury, décor, food, service – he offered them all with a true simplicity of spirit, a lightness that never imposed anything on his customers.”

Ernest Hemingway, who sojourned in Venice in the 1930s, was a Harry’s Bar regular. On one occasion, Hemingway’s wife Mary joined her husband at Harry’s Bar with his duck hunting friends and a certain Princess Aspasia, who had retired to Venice after her husband died from being bitten by his pet monkey. Mary Hemingway enjoyed the fish soup at Harry’s Bar so much that she asked for the recipe and noted it in her diary.

Apart from the classic fish soup, to this day a fixture on the menu, Harry’s Bar is famous for other unique dishes, such as the tagliolini gratinati, oozing with ham, butter and cheese, and by contrast the almost austere carpaccio of thinly sliced raw beef, decoratively criss-crossed with a light drizzle of mayonnaise. Invented here, the dish was named after the great Venetian painter, Vittore Carpaccio following the exhibition of his works in Venice in 1950. Many Venetians come to Harry’s Bar only for the scampi al curry, or the glorious torta meringata, invented as a way to use up the egg whites left over from making the mayonnaise for the famous sandwiches served at the bar.

For first and foremost, as its name attests, Harry’s Bar is a bar. The drinks are small and served in chilled, stemless glasses. Like everything else at Harry’s Bar, the whole performance – deft, swift, noiseless is all about perfectionism. The Bellini was invented here, of course, and named after the great Venetian painter; it is topped by an unobtrusive layer of froth and made all year round from frozen peaches which almost seem to emulsify with the gentle foam of the Prosecco.

A view of the Grand Canal from the bar.

© Mauritius

Radical Classicism

The drinks at Harry’s Bar are carefully made, precisely measured, never rushed, never uneven, never slow to arrive, exquisitely crafted, never disappointing. There is nothing exotic, nothing modern, and nothing that could be considered “interesting.” This is radical classicism at the level of the Directoire. One might try a dry Martini, an exemplary Bloody Mary, or a Bullshot of vodka and beef broth. There is the classic Negroni, the colour of a Venice sky, or a darker and lighter version – lighter in alcohol and darker in colour – Milano-Torino, without the gin. For late night stragglers there is the unctuous Stinger, Crème de Menthe and brandy, the pristine White Spider with vodka, or the tangy Daiquiri with rum and lemon juice.

Some of the bartenders and waiters retire and are replaced. This is sad because it seems that things can never be as good without them, yet Harry’s Bar somehow manages to carry on, through fat and lean times, high and low tides, sometimes in defiance of fashion, sometimes riding on its crest. The inimitable Arrigo Cipriani, a year older than his eponymous restaurant, elegant in his suit, courteous and enigmatic, is still there most nights to personally welcome his customers and observe the proceedings with a watchful eye. Long may it continue.

HARRY'S BAR
San Marco 1323, Venice 30124
+39 041 5208822, cipriani.com
Open Fridays to Tuesdays 12 noon to 11pm

FIND OUT MORE