Harry’s Bar

December 28, 2017

I try not to be an Ugly American when I travel. I learn a few phrases, I am polite, I smile. I have few expectations, as I know full well things will be different in a foreign country. It was Christmas night in Venice, and we’d reserved at Harry’s Bar, probably one of the most famous restaurants in the world. It has both its fans and detractors, but we couldn’t come to Venice and not go to Harry’s Bar at least once in our lives. And when visiting a cultural institution, whether the place has been deemed overrated or not, I remain open minded and dress appropriately. I wore a dress; Steve wore a suit and tie. Most of the locals dining there dressed similarly. The non-locals? Jeans, sneakers, a cowboy hat, and a table of four really ugly Christmas sweaters. I said to Steve that I hoped they weren’t Americans, but I was pretty sure they were.

The service in the upstairs dining room was impeccable. Older, professional waiters and young runners in white dinner jackets, with the pecking order designated by the color of their bow ties. White linens and weighty silverware and coupe Champagne glasses, just as it was when Giuseppe Cipriani opened the place in1931. We drank Prosecco and dined on rib eye and veal chops, and ate their famous chocolate cake. As a Christmas treat they also brought to the table panettone with zabaione sauce, a holiday sweet bread with a sauce of egg yolks, sugar and sweet wine. Steve had a Bellini, their signature drink, because, well, how could he not?

The place is legendary, and we learned more of its history after dinner by stopping at the downstairs original bar for an after dinner drink. If Hemingway, Capote and Noel Coward drank there, then so should we. The bartender, Marco, a twenty-year veteran of the restaurant, shared a book of its history and told us stories of Cipriani’s difficult relationship with his native Italy during the fascist regime and how he hid liquor during the period of Nazi rule. Marco showed us the high water mark in the bar from the 1966 aqua alta (high water) flood. He showed us the special glassware; martinis are served in an oversized shot glass and Bellinis in a stemless flute. Marco was the student of Claudio, a bartender there for over 50 years, now retired, who still resides in Venice at age 93.

The bottles on the wall behind the bar are set up exactly as they were the day the bar opened. The clock is original, but the mechanism has been replaced with a quartz timepiece. Marco took it off the wall to show us the dark wood behind it contrasting with the faded walls. Why the name Harry’s Bar? Giuseppe Cipriani befriended a young Bostonian student while working as a bartender at the Hotel Europa. Harry Pickering had been left behind by his rich aunt and had no money. Cipriani lent him 10,000 lira which he never expected to see again. Two years later Harry Pickering came back to Venice and gave Cipriani 40,000 lira to open his own bar. And the legend that is Harry’s Bar began.

Could we have found this out by Googling Harry’s Bar? Yes, most of it, of course. But we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of a private conversation with a knowledgeable source over Calvados on Christmas night. And I’m betting we were singled out because we were dressed for the occasion. Take that, ugly Christmas sweaters.

Deborah

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Ertz-Berger December 28, 2017 at 12:29 pm

Hope you guys are having a wonderful time.

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Bob Girard December 28, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Dear Cousin Deb,
Dressing appropriately, not acting like a big shot Trumpesque American, and treating the local staff respectfully pays dividends wherever you may be in your travels. Your having a drink in the same bar as Hemingway did was fascinating. I admire your (and Steve’s) lively spirit of adventure and good taste. Wouldn’t life would be a bore if everyone marched to the same drummer.
Cousin Bob (Freezing in Toronto)

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Linda & John December 29, 2017 at 1:51 am

Dear Deb and Steve,
So happy you both are on another adventure. This time Venice, Italy. Visiting local, famous, unique spots is what it’s all about. More photos please! We do so enjoy reading along with your experiences. Life is rich, and yummy when you seek out new places. Be safe and keep enjoying!!
Love to you both, Linda and John ( It’s brutally cold here in PA) Our new best friend is our fireplace.

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Octavia December 29, 2017 at 2:15 am

Wonderful story, wonderful experience, and beautifully told. Thank you so much, from our Gotlandic God Jul to your La Serenissa Buon Natale!

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Ronald S Copeland December 29, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Really great, soinds like you guys are having a fabulous holiday vacation. So please just continue to enjoy

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Michelle January 10, 2018 at 3:42 pm

awesome story! as a young girl, who has traveled back and forth to visit my brothers and sisters who live in Italy from a very young age – I hated even back then to admit how I felt as “an American” today, I wouldn’t recommend or do anything different or less – it is sad, but if you dress appropriately, act appropriately you will be treated so different – not to mention speaking Italian fluently never hurt – lol!

Auguri Deb and Steve – love reading these!

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