As Venice’s Grand Canal opens up into the wide expanse of St Mark’s Basin, there sits one of the Serenissima’s legendary landmarks. First-time visitors often walk straight past the discreet swing doors with “Harry” gently etched on the glass, but once inside the lounge, there’s no mistaking where they are: six stools line up along the bar – all invariably occupied – with a dozen or so low, wooden tables on the periphery. There is no background music and the atmosphere resembles that of an exclusive private club as white-jacketed waiters glide around the room taking orders. Little has changed since Giuseppe Cipriani first opened Harry’s Bar in 1931, but over the years this unique watering hole has welcomed movie stars and millionaires, authors, fashion designers and royalty. And the drink that everyone wants to try? The signature Bellini, of course.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the moment when Giuseppe Cipriani first created his memorable mix of peach juice and prosecco sparkling wine. His son, Arrigo, a spritely 86-year-old, who still runs Harry’s today, recalls, “My father had reopened the bar after the war, when it had been forcibly converted into a troops restaurant, and began serving Champagne with fresh peach juice. But Champagne was expensive and in short supply, plus he preferred our local, lighter prosecco. In 1948, Venice held an exhibition of his favourite Renaissance artist, Giovanni Bellini, and the soft pink glow of these paintings matched the subtle hues of the new cocktail.
Everyone is welcome at Harry’s, from tourists in jeans and jumpers to starlets draped in haute couture
And so the Bellini was born. Today, Harry’s Bar serves some 200 Bellinis a day, and over a year a staggering five tons of peaches and 10,000 prosecco bottles are consumed. It has become an iconic cocktail served across the globe, but nothing quite compares to the one made in Harry’s Bar. The Bellini tops the drinks list of pretty much every locale in Venice, but beware, habitually you will be served an overpriced, pale imitation of the original. According to Signor Cipriani, “The secret is the peach. Many people just think they can mix ready-made, bad peach drinks with any sparkling wine. The results are usually disastrous!”
Today, the Cipriani family has built up a global empire encompassing restaurants and clubs the world over, from Abu Dhabi to Hong Kong, building a reputation for peerless Italian food and even more peerless service. But its roots are humble: founder Giuseppe was working as a regular bartender in the Europa Hotel in the late 1920s when he bailed out one of his young American clients, a certain Harry Pickering, whose rich parents were about to cut off his funds. In 1931, Mr Pickering surprisingly returned, repaying the loan four times over. It was enough to open a bar in an old rope warehouse a stone’s throw from Piazza San Marco, which Giuseppe named in honour of his generous patron.
Ever since, the whole world visiting Venice stops off at Harry’s Bar; Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas, Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn, Truman Capote, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham. Arrigo Cipriani recalls that Orson Welles, “as big as an armoire, devoured plates of shrimp sandwiches washed down with two bottles of iced Dom Perignon, while the Aga Khan preferred beluga caviar”. And then of course there was Ernest Hemingway, who immortalised Harry’s inThe secret of the success of Harry’s Bar and its continued importance in modern Venice is that it does not follow fads or fashions, be it decor or cocktail recipes. This is a place that sets its own rules, which never change. Their Martini is like no other in the world, pre-mixed in a monogrammed, iced shot glass, while Harry’s famed beef carpaccio is served today exactly as it was when Giuseppe invented the dish in 1950, inspired by the colours of another great Venetian painter, Vittore Carpaccio, whose name is sadly now more associated with raw beef and fish than his splendid 16th-century paintings. Although celebrities can still be spotted here, maybe George Clooney during the Venice Film Festival or Elton John and entourage when visiting his private palazzo, the ever-present spirit of Giuseppe Cipriani persists; everyone is welcome at Harry’s Bar, from curious tourists in jeans and sweaters to fashionable starlets draped in haute couture, art dealers and rich collectors during the Biennale to the instantly recognisable, elegant Venetian aristocrats. The only difference is that they greet the waiters by their first names and somehow always get their favourite table.