From my diary: Gritti Palace Hotel, Venice, October 26, 1948: “Lettuce leaves jostling in the wakes of boats on the Grand Canal…. The two bells of the Campanile are an octave apart … We lunched at Harry’s Bar, chic people and a triumphant fish soup.”
March 18, 1949: “Met Papa at Harry’s and many friends there—Count Carlo di Robilant and his wife Caroline, the Tripcovitches, Princess Aspasia of Greece with whom, Papa said, he’s had an afternoon of good, solid drink and talk while I was away, Baron Nanyuki Franchetti, Prince Tassilo Fürstenberg, a couple of Windisch-Graetzes and other once-Austrians, Howard, the Duke of Norfolk’s younger brother and his pretty wife, Countess Lili Volpi and that enduring, endearing old Countess Amelia de Reali. We lunched in a haze of affection and felicity with the di Robilants, the green tagliarini divine; paused on the way home as usual to inspect the jewelry in Codognato’s window.”
December 5, 1967: “Lunched with Cipriani and his lovely and elegant dark-eyed Giulia (wife) and his sister, Gabriella, my old friend, in the peace and sunshine of the upstairs room at Harry’s. He was in his usual fine spirits, with his cool, clear blue eyes unchanged, observing everything. I had scampi, fresh and sweet with a whisper of garlic. He had garnished hamburger, maybe not quite as good as my Wild West Hamburger, I surmised.”
Just behind the floating platform which is the San Marco station for Venice’s water buses stands Harry’s Bar, at number 1323 Calle Vallaresso. For thirty-seven years it has provided hospitality to more celebrated people from everywhere than any bar-and-restaurant anywhere. Regular customers call it “the office,” and its creator, Giuseppe Cipriani, “this era’s Doge.”
When you push open the narrow glass front door, frosted for the privacy of the guests, you step up onto a slightly heated floor of Roman travertine marble which is twenty-nine feet long, shorter than a gondola, and fourteen feet wide. The bar and nine high stools take up about a fourth of the space; twelve tables occupy the rest. The two choicest positions are the corner tables opposite the door. At each of these round tables four or five guests can sit comfortably on black leather banquettes and eat in comparative isolation.
Seasoned customers ask for the corner table on the Grand Canal side of the room for lunch, to avoid the sunshine slanting through the windows, and at night for the opposite corner with its good view of the bustle at the bar. All day long everybody can gaze at the white ceiling rippling with light off the busy waters of the Canal outside-one of the ancient presents that Venice has always offered to the eye.
Trying to remember his important customers, Cipriani recalled a day, “In 1935, I think,” when his waiters served lunch simultaneously to King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, King Paul of Greece and King Peter of Yugoslavia. “It was just by chance, of course,” he said. “Some festival brought them to Venice. Or maybe a party. King Paul ate scampi Armoricain, one of his favorite dishes here.”
Anybody who is anybody—as well as anybodies who aren’t anybody—has been a customer at Harry’s if he has been to Venice since 1931. Big eccentric signatures cover the pages of the bar’s guest book: Ferenc Molnar, Noel Coward, Irene Principessa di Grecia e di Danimarca, G. R. Hall Caine, Serge Lifar, Tito Schipa and “Nothing better than Harry’s” Lawrence Tibbett. The old Aga Khan used to lunch there with the then “Queen of Venice,” Anina Morosini, who remained a beauty into her old age. He would arrive at the door in a wheelchair and then walk to his table to eat great mounds of big-grained gray caviar.
After Elsa Maxwell and the Windsors had squabbled they occupied tables as far from each other as possible. When they made up the quarrel, they again lunched together, and none of the waiters appeared to notice one change or the other.
Giuseppe Cipriani was born in 1900 in Verona, but spent the first fourteen years of his life in Germany. At the outbreak of World War I, the family returned to Verona and Giuseppe became first a pastry cook, then a soldier whom the armistice saved from active duty. In the postwar depression, he took jobs where he found them, as a waiter or a bartender around Italy and in France and Belgium. When finally he was made barman at the old Europa Hotel on the Grand Canal, he studied recipes for the new-fashioned cocktails that the international clientele demanded, and soon became the hotel’s chief problem solver.
Among the old Europa’s guests in those days was Mary Landon Baker, a pretty and capricious girl from Chicago who had left Alistair McCormick at the altar and whom the Venetians labeled “the shy bride.” Miss Baker liked picnicking and on fine days she would assemble her friends—among them a young Bostonian, Harry Pickering—and they would go in gondolas across the lagoon to a shady copse. There a servant would spread out what everyone declared was “the best food in Venice”: the sweetest ham, the juiciest chicken, the peariest pears, prepared and packed under the supervision of young Cipriani. He was steadily learning.
Pickering’s closest companion was a small black Pekingese dog, his favorite drink was a Sidecar. His health was frail, because one lung had been removed. Pickering and his rich aunt, who lived in Monte Carlo, stayed at length in Venice in 1928 and again in 1929 and both were steady customers at the Europa bar. Then the aunt found other companions, the stock market crashed, and Cipriani noticed that Pickering was ordering fewer and fewer drinks. One day he said: “Either you must be ill or short of funds. I have some savings and you are welcome to them.” Pickering accepted the gift-loan and soon thereafter left Venice, leaving no forwarding address.
On February 1st, 1931, Pickering walked into the Europa bar and announced that he had come to repay Cipriani’s $5,000 loan. For years Pickering had been a stamp collector. He had sold his collection.
Cipriani had long felt frustrated by the restrictions imposed on Venetian hotel bartenders by the owners. “Pinch-penny little drinks costing too much, stale almonds, limp potato chips,” he recalls.
“Why don’t we make a luxury bar in Venice? A bar by itself. Not in a hotel?” he suggested. Pickering thought the idea sensational.
When word got around the town—news travels with the speed of light because everybody sees everybody else almost every day—friends and acquaintances were alarmed. Venice was in the depth of the economic depression. Nobody pretended to have any money and nobody was spending it. “Crazy,” people said. “It will fail in a month.” Pickering answered that he would spend 1,000 lira at the bar every day, “so we shall make plenty of profits.” Cipriani’s wife Giulia found a suitable site for the bar in a street of then modest shops near the Piazza. (Giuseppe and Giulia met in Verona and, she maintains, she had been in love with him since she was twelve years old.)
The partners spent 150,000 lira on furnishings. The sea-life murals were done for nothing by Baron G. Rubin de Cervin, director of the Venetian Naval Museum, and a faithful customer who still drops in daily for a drink and a snack.
Harry’s Bar opened on Wednesday, May 13, 1931, with a debt of 90,000 lira. It was an instant success. Cipriani’s drinks were twice as big as those of the hotel bars, his almonds fresh, his potato chips crisp, and soon he introduced free little sandwiches, the bread sliced lengthwise in three strips. There are now four varieties: hot cheese and ham, chicken with a touch of mayonnaise, salad with tiny shrimp, and a combination of cooked eggs and anchovies.
During the war, the officers of Mussolini’s navy lunched or dined at the little bar with the daughters of local families. Although Venetian parents were seldom so permissive as the British or Americans, many allowed their daughters to go to Harry’s, probably because all Venice would know at once if they misbehaved.
This remained true in 1948 when Ernest once ebulliently promoted a flirtation at the bar with a striking beauty who was sipping orange juice. He was joined by Prince Tassilo Fürstenberg, who said, “A-ha. So you’ve made friends with my daughter, Ira. She’s a fine big girl for her age.” It turned out later that Ira was fourteen that year.
As it did to all European hotel and restaurant owners, World War II brought Cipriani varied and serious problems. Because visiting Americans and British had frequented Harry’s Bar, local Fascists spread the word that Cipriani was anti-Fascist and painted a slogan on the building, “Chiuso per disinfezione” (Closed for disinfection). To his dismay, he was ordered to put up a sign inside: “Jews not welcome.” Cipriani changed the bar’s name from Harry’s to Arrigo, the Italian for Harry.
At lunchtime on September 11, 1943, the place was packed with familiar faces—Barone Rubin, Count Carlo di Robilant, Olivio Tripcovich—when the German consul and some S.S. pushed in, accused Tripcovich of being a spy and hauled him away. He was an immense, pleasant, gentle man, his fortune made by ancestors in shipping in Yugoslavia, as were other Venetian family fortunes. Olivio had said something uncomplimentary about the Germans in the bar. Cipriani got in touch with a friend of his, a German factory owner, and protested: “Do something. Tripcovich has never been a spy. He is too innocent for that.” After a couple of weeks Olivio was let out of jail. In 1944 the Fascists closed Harry’s Bar. Cipriani bought a sailboat and he and his only son, Arrigo, spent their days exploring the lagoon. When the Italian navy asked that the bar be reopened as an officers’ mess, Cipriani gave the job to Renato Hausammann, his second-in-command from 1935 until 1959. (When in 1935 Cipriani advertised for a barman, Renato, aged 13, was the only applicant who confessed he knew nothing about the business. He was promptly hired.) In 1945, when the Allies occupied Venice, the British and Americans found the bar so congenial that Cipriani had to close the doors at 8 o’clock in the evenings in order to get home by midnight. Arrigo’s Bar became Harry’s again.
When, in 1957, Giuseppe undertook to build and run for some of the Guinness family the beautiful and expensive Hotel Cipriani on the Giudecca, Arrigo took over “the office” as full-time, permanent manager.
Baron Rubin’s murals have long since disappeared from the walls. Instead, hanging against flat brown cloth, there are a couple of lacy drawings by Leon Zack, a painting of the Piazza, the Doges’ Palace and the lagoon by Mario Dinon, and a couple of flat, semi-impressionist landscapes. Plants flourish on the sills of the windows overlooking the Grand Canal and lights glow in small wall brackets. “The only thing left from the beginning is the door,” says Baron Rubin, nodding towards the modernistic brown wooden door swinging towards the kitchen. Cipriani never bothered with elaborate decor. “The customers are the decoration,” he says. Indeed, the room is seldom without at least one decorative guest.
The talk at Harry’s, both in 1948 when we first went to Venice, and again last winter, is usually about the rest of the clientele, whether or not they happen to be in that day. The stimuli to gossip must grow in the damp air, with its hint of drains, of the lagoon and the canals.
There are exceptions to the glandular chitchat. Ernest’s cherished friend Count Carlo Kechler had been with the Italians in Spain’s Civil War, and they busily identified places and battles in which they were enemies. Afterwards Ernest dreamed of coming upon Carlo, stricken on the Spanish earth, of leaning over him and begging: “Speak to me, Carlo, speak to me.” Wherever they encountered each other, at Harry’s they reenacted the dream, chortling.
With Count Tiberto Brandolini, Ernest had another secret nonsense. Meeting at Harry’s they saluted in the rigid British army manner and recited together: “I love the bloody old banana because it has no bones.”
Ernest fell constantly in love with girls at Harry’s. A man couldn’t help it when tulip-fresh young faces pushed up to him and said such things as: “I am your admiration.” A self-starter.
“As of now, I am your admiration, daughter. Will you have something potable?”
“I have read your wonderful book….”
“Better to know me than to read me.”
“You are here in Venice for a long time?”
“How long are you here?”
Before the lunchtime rush begins there is always a gentleman at the little table just inside the front door reading his newspaper and sipping a drink. There are always some smashing-looking girls dressed in the latest fashion—pants suits last winter—and a clutch of dowagers gossiping at machine-gun speed. There is no music, and men are allowed in without ties. But Angelo dal Maschio and Ruggero behind the bar, both there twenty years, are always in immaculate white jackets and black bow ties. So are their assistants. There is nearly always one notable string of pearls in the little room, and nearly always a handsome young couple paying more attention to each other than to the ambience. For years there was a smiling harlot with a dog who sat quietly at the corner of the bar near the cash register.
During a week last winter there were enough familiar faces to give the room its normal appearance. There were also the usual small contretemps. One gentleman, having an appointment with a lady seated at the back, came in, looked, paused, took a quick drink at the bar and departed. At the table next to his intended rendezvous sat his wife.
On an evening of the same week a Flower Child (American) joined a dinner table, uninvited, then proceeded to borrow sips of wine from the glass of an astonished lady at the adjoining table. When the dinner hostess suggested to the Flower Child that she was no longer welcome, the Child, aged perhaps thirty, refused to budge. But Angelo got her out.
Since the war, the menu, printed in Italian and English, has changed only a little, and only new customers ask for it. The regulars ask what is the pasta today and are there scampi. Arrigo Cipriani, a slim young man with his father’s cool, observant eyes, has a corner on the scampi market. “If we don’t have scampi, no place in Venice has them,” he says. Many people feel they are the freshest, sweetest anywhere—grilled with the lightest whiff of garlic, in thermidor or with a curry sauce. Pasta fans feel the same way about Arrigo’s pasta, made freshly every morning in the upstairs kitchen—eight eggs for each two pounds of flour. And the fish soup!
Arrigo gets his butter from a village on the Austrian border near Bolzano. He buys only lively live lobsters, smells all the cheeses, and insists that the Parmesan be freshly grated each morning.
“Americans like our cannelloni for lunch. They have a big breakfast and want only one dish at midday,” he says. The standard Venetian breakfast, a piece of bread, perhaps some fruit, and a cup of strong black espresso, leaves room at lunchtime for pasta and a fish or meat course.
“What does it take to make a good bar?” I asked Mr. Cipriani (père) recently. He answered:
“First you must treat people as though they were your guests in your private house. Try to please them.
“Second, you must provide the best possible, most honest drinks and the best possible, honest food, al the right prices.
“Third, you must never let customers have the feeling that you want to take money off them. Never suggest the more expensive dishes on the menu. They might feel obliged to say ‘Yes’ even though it might be more than they could afford. Especially if they are with friends, they might be embarrassed.
“You must remember that new customers are apt to be shy. Help them feel that this is not so new or different. Help them to feel at home.
“Of course you must be a connoisseur of people.”
“How does one become a ‘connoisseur of people?’” I asked the younger Cipriani.
“It isn’t something easily learned … a matter of seeing and trying to understand. I have observed that if one appears a bit shy in a public job like mine, people are likely to give you more confidence than they would if you appeared overconfident and unthoughtful.”
Harry Pickering, the frail Bostonian, died in Monte Carlo in 1948. He would probably be pleased that his Italian bartender-friend has maintained a loyal and lively memorial to him for nearly forty years. ◊
Recipe for Harry’s Bar’s Fish Soup
Fresh, firm fish with eyes still bright and not sunken.
Onions, carrots, celery
A roux of flour and butter
A little saffron, salt and pepper Small shrimp and mussels
Make a court bouillon, simmering the onions, carrots and celery in water, with a dash of white wine. Add the whole fish, scaled, and cook for half an hour.
Take out the fish and carefully remove the meat. Put the head and bones back into the broth and simmer another half-hour.
Strain the broth through a fine sieve. Return to the fire and add the saffron, pepper and salt, the little shrimp and mussels and the meat of the original fish. Add roux of flour and butter. Simmer for twelve minutes.