2020 Grateful 33: Harry’s Bar

It seems like yesterday that I was sitting in Harry’s Bar in Venice sipping a ridiculously expensive Bellini and tipping a nod to the good Lord for giving me the wherewithal to pay the eye-popping bill. And today, in a rural village in Hungary, I heard the sad, sad, news. The inimitable Arrigo Cipriani has announced that the iconic Harry’s Bar will not open post-Covid-19. No more expensive Bellinis. No more wallowing amidst the walls where Hemmingway once drew a breath. I was in Venice for the first time in 2009. I went to see Harry’s Bar.

Of course, no trip to Venice would be complete without a visit to Harry’s Bar. It’s the reason I went and the reason I’ve been going for years but only now got there. The home of carpaccio and the bellini, Harry’s Bar was a home from home to Hemingway. It’s a quiet, unimposing bar/restaurant on the corner of Calle Valerroso. The prices are astronomical, and deliberately so. They’re designed to separate the genuine article from the fakes – those that want to sit for a while where Hemingway sat, enjoying the palpable legacy of greatness as opposed to those who read about it, know something of the man, and want to add it to the list of sights seen. While we were there, so many came in, sat down, opened the menu, read the prices and left. The waiters were so used to this, they didn’t blink an eye. Thankfully, I had a credit card and had come a long way and waited a long time to taste my first bellini… and I’ll be back.

I remember we had trouble finding it. It’s nothing grand. Just a bar. Not too long ago, I came across the receipt for the Bellini and a cappuccino. It was barely legible. I threw it out but not before stopping to relive that hour.

Arrigo is the son of Giuseppe Cipriani, the chap who opened the bar in 1931. Arrigo was born a year later. It’s been open every day for almost 90 years or so. It even stayed open during the war. Thoroughly annoyed at the Italian government’s guide for reopening, Arrigo was quoted in the Evening Standard:

Italian hospitality means welcoming, and good food. It needs love, freedom, and these [conditions] are things of concentration camps.

From what I read, he’s already in talks with the Spanish government about opening a bar in Ibiza and it seems very much like the iconic Venetian watering hole will be no more. I’ll never get to have the second Bellini.

As the story goes, a certain rich young American named Harry Pickering used to drink at the bar in the Hotel Europa where Giuseppe tended bar. He was a regular and then suddenly stopped coming in. When they next ran into each other, Giuseppe asked him why. Turns out, the rich American had been cut off by his family (his aunt I think) and he was broke. Giuseppe lent him 10 000 lire – quite a lot back then. Two years later, Pickering dropped by the Europa with the original 10k and 40k more. Enough to open a bar – a bar they’d call Harry’s Bar.

It’s had its share of notables. Arrigo once chased Orson Welles across the square when he walked out without paying his bill. Giuseppe invented the Bellini and a carpaccio (who knew about carpaccio?*!) and the day we were there, it was served from a pitcher, pre-mixed. I was gutted. I’d expected to have it mixed for me… especially at €17 a pop… and that was in 2009. I only had the one.

I’m grateful that I did get to go. But sad, too. There’s a lesson there. This whole idea of putting things off, of waiting till the time is right, of using the excuse of ‘we can always come back’ not to make the most of my travels… these I’ll have to rethink. I’ll need to work on my priorities and make sure that I separate what I want to do from what the guide books tell me I should do. Of all the things I remember and enjoyed about Venice, that hour in Harry’s Bar is what I relish most. I wonder how many more iconic institutions won’t be opening when all this is over?

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