David Gerrie meets owner Harry Cipriani at Harry’s Bar, the most famous watering hole in Venice.
“If you’re eating in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy, you’re not eating Italian food,” intones Arrigo Cipriani, legendary Venetian icon and, since his father’s passing and now an unreasonably youthful 90 years old, still looks after the day-to-day running of Harry’s Bar, La
Serenissima’s (and possibly the world’s) most famous go-to watering hole for the great and the good.
In times gone by, names like Hemingway, Orson Welles and Onassis were regulars. Now, it’s more likely to be the Clooneys and Kidmans of this world
“What could a French tyre company possibly know about Italian cookery,” he says, warming to his subject while taking us on a lunchtime tasting tour of dishes which have probably changed as little as the dark mahogany fittings and pale yellow linen since this shrine to art deco styling first opened its doors in 1931.
His theme is one familiar to anyone who’s eaten at any authentic restaurant in Italy. At their truest, Italian chefs will always value the provenance and quality of ingredients over any fussy culinary techniques, with minimalism on the plate being the norm’.
If you order a veal chop, that (plus, if you’re lucky, a lemon wedge) will be exactly what you’ll see on your plate – no more, no less. Veggies, should you desire them, are generally a la carte.
Harry’s Bar adheres to this philosophy with an almost-religious fervour. And, unlike many Venetian haunts, it’s a doddle to find. Stand at the entrance to the Piazza San Marco looking out across the Grand Canal, turn right, negotiate all the tat stalls and street artists, cross a tiny bridge and keep going until a canal forces you to turn right. You’re now at the front door of Harry’s Bar.
You can start with their Bellini (22 euros). Many recipes will tell you to heighten the colour by using cherry or raspberry juice. Here, it’s a divine blushing cocktail made from nothing other than white peach pulp and Prosecco. Their classic Martini is made from Tanqueray gin, stored in huge flagons, to which a few drops of Vermouth are added, before being frozen down to -20C, to be served in mini-tumblers, rather than the traditional conical stemware.
It’s safe to say, if you have the wherewithal, you could order anything here and be very happy. It’s impossible to say stick with the classics because everything on their menu falls into this category.
And, as you’ve probably guessed, this is not a place for those shallow of pocket. Most salads, soups and antipasti cost between 25-35 euros, while main courses are around 40-50 euros.
To start, go with the carpaccio of beef – cut from the centre of a ribeye, served raw and sliced so thinly you really can see the restaurant’s logo through it, making even the most beaten-out of schnitzels look like a doorstop. Layered across the plate, a la smoked salmon, it’s drizzled with a simple mayonnaise with a little added lemon juice. Sublime!
Move on to a pasta dish (everything they can possibly make in situ, they do) such as the revelatory spinach and ricotta-stuffed ravioli. Sure, it’s a cliche of most would-be trattorias, but you’ll never have tasted one like this. Like the beef, the pasta is translucent and given a luxurious “slip” from having been given a quick run through some melted butter; you can actually taste the spinach and the cheese is more like cream cheese than the rather anodyne, crumbly stuff which proliferates elsewhere.
Most appetites might sensibly call a halt here, but, if you’re going the full Italian hog, you’ll know it’s a nation whose meals are rigorously constructed of an antipasti, primi, secondi and dolce.
If you’re not offal-averse (the Italians love their inner bits), try the fegato alla Veneziana – basically, chunks of calves’ liver and onions served in a rich, meaty sauce, given some respite by the generous quenelle of soft polenta sitting alongside.
Other offerings include Harry’s specialities such as cuttlefish with polenta, baked tagliolini with ham, scampi thermidor, or, somewhat oddly, chicken curry with rice pilaf.
Should you make it to dolce, there’s a small choice – best to go for one of their home-made ice-creams or sorbets (the peach version of the latter is a blast).
Sure, given its heritage, it’s a tourist trap, but I can imagine few more pleasant fates than being snared in its maws for an indecently long time.
Viva La Dolce Vita!
Images (C) David Gerrie
Tell Me More About Harry’s Bar
Address: Harry’s Bar, Calle Vallaresso, 1323, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
T:: +39 041 528 5777
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