Why did the fear that Harry’s Bar in Venice would remain closed forever be the one Covid-related news item that might push me over the edge right now? Yes, I know there are definitely more important things going on in the world than worrying about sipping an extravagantly, overpriced salmon-hued beverage in a bolthole in Northern Italy.
There is a lot to dislike about Harry’s Bar. Let’s try to disregard owner Arrigo Cipriani’s rantings – comparing the Italian Government’s Covid reopening measures to rules at a concentration camp. (And I thought I was being dramatic!) There is no view. If you are seated upstairs, they are basically telling you that you are not worthy to be seen. There is no place to wait for your table. The seats are so low, don’t even think about crossing your legs. To top it all, the food is not only over priced, but insanely expensive for, what some might reckon, is just a plate of spaghetti.
On Tripadvisor, a combination of “sky high prices” and “terrible food” seems to pop up in almost every review. I even found it at the top of the list of “9 Things *Not* To Do In Venice,” her Bellini was “served by an indifferent, zero-charisma bartender at a once-respected tourist trap” Even god-like Anthony Bordain put it at least a bit more eloquently when he said, “You get a pretty good plate of food – and the Bellinis are just fine. They just cost a f**k of a lot”.”
The Bellini itself, a simple combination of white peach puree and Prosecco, has been bastardized beyond recognition. Some folks don’t even know that the Bellini originated in Venice. Just google “Bellini cocktail recipes” and you’ll find passion fruit, mango, rhubarb, orange, elderflower, raspberry replacing the, anything but simple, white peach puree. Cava and Champagne have replaced Prosecco, just because, and the recipe has been laden with the likes of Cointreau, star anise, and even basil.
BUT, and that’s a big BUT! For its devotees, there is way more to love. How can you hate the place that invented, not only the Bellini, but also Carpaccio. How can you hate the place where Hemingway was downing his eponymous daiquiri while pouring over revisions of Across the River and Into the Trees, and how can you hate the place where Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte enjoyed a repast while on their Grand Tour. Hating Harry’s is almost akin to hating Venice itself.
Just as Harry’s Bar is more than a restaurant, the Bellini is more than a cocktail. Its founder, Giuseppe Cipriani, named it for the soft pink hues of the Venetian Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini’s distinctive color palette. If that isn’t romantic, I’m not sure what is. Everyone, from t-shirt sporting tourists to Celine wearing celebs, is invited to enjoy a Bellini at any time – day or night. Served not in the grand Champagne flute, but a simple, what could be mistaken for, water glass decorated with the distinctive Harry’s Bar logo – a bartender shaking up a few Bellinis!
Why did the fear of it shutting mean so much to me? I feel that of all the cocktails in the oeuvre – the Bellini has been my constant companion since I first stepped onto Italian soil. At 13, I was a nerdy, unsure of myself, naive teenager. Shy and insecure, I stepped off the plane and into a water taxi headed for the Gritti. It was March and so foggy that you couldn’t see Venice, or anything else for that matter. As we grew ever closer, one canal opened up and then the next and soon we were on the Grand Canal. The city had unpeeled its layers and invited me in.
One evening of that fateful journey was spent at Harry’s. Whether it was just the Italian way or not, each and everyone of the staff made this cygnet feel like Sophia Loren. It was the early 80’s, so hype hadn’t been invented yet, no celebrity culture, no upstairs. Just this one room with its too low to cross your legs seating, unending plates of risotto and that cocktail – yes, my folks let me have one – it was the early 80’s after all. One sip and I was no longer that geeky girl who had experienced almost nothing in life so far, but a page in Venice’s history.
Years passed and, as I grew into the adult I would become, Harry’s grew as well. Every visit to Venice, the first lunch had to be at Harry’s, then a few more quick Bellinis at the bar, then a long lunch at Harry’s Dolci – their outpost on Giudecca where we would sit outside with our luggage safely hidden away somewhere until the taxi was called to take us to the airport.
I followed Harry’s to NY where I think I purposefully chose to work next door in what was the GM Building at the time. As it acted as the main restaurant for the Sherry Netherland Hotel, Harry’s was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My friends and I made a habit of dropping in for breakfast before work, loading up on their outstanding Eggs Benedict (I bet you had no idea they could rustle up some great eggy dishes!) and breakfast bellinis.
Anytime we popped in, Sergio at the door and Daniele behind the bar would make sure we were well-fed with “left-over” plates of risotto and a huge pile of those incredible zucchini fritti. Of course, we were greeted with a never-ending Bellini before us, charging us only for the first. We were family, we were home. Birthdays were celebrated there, friends from out of town always met us there, Saturday night began there. We all hoped that no matter what happened in life, we could always afford at least one Bellini.
Although I hold it so close to my heart, I don’t expect it to love me back. I have not become lifelong friends with any member of the Cipriani family. I don’t walk in and they all know me and make a fuss. I still have to ask for the table I like when I make a reservation (downstairs in the corner). Only on one trip to Venice, I was presented with the bill and given the secret Sconto Veneziano – 30% off. It hasn’t ever happened again. It’s my own personal unrequited love affair.
Thank goodness, Arrigo Cipriani has not mentioned closing up shop again and I think Bellinis will most likely be on the menu when we all can book our flights back to La Serenissma. As long as there is the hope that there is a Bellini in my future, I know I can power through as much self-isolation as they throw at me.