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From Carpaccio to Bellini: when art creates the legend

Harry's Bar in Venice turns ninety years old and has just been recognized by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage as a National Heritage Monument. History of the place where, since 1931, the "Bel mondo" has met.

By Gianfranco Gatta

There is a part of Hemingway in James Bond, Agent 007 licensed to kill. In all the films, a scene appears where he orders a shaken, unshaken Martini Cocktail.

In reality, the writer's lesson goes further: “Pour two quarters of Martini Dry into ice cubes into the mixing glass, shake well and then throw the Vermouth, of which only the aroma remains. Six quarters of Gin is poured into the remaining ice, taken from the freezer, stirred and then filtered with the strainer into the special glass, the maxima cup. The olives are to taste, but useless”.

“This is how my father told me when I was about twelve, sitting between the tables of Harry's Bar in Venice, while annoyingly dodging the olives from the maxima bowl”.

Legend has it that Hemingway wrote the book “Across the river and into the trees” on those same tables, between one martini and another; in reality, mindful of a barrel hunt for ducks in the Caorle lagoon, he wrote it between Cortina and Cuba.

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“Il Bar”, as Arrigo Cipriani, the owner calls it, turns ninety and has just been recognized by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage as a National Heritage Monument.

The history of its foundation is known but it is worth summarizing it briefly because it is a history of the past, where human relationships were still a value.

Giuseppe Cipriani, Arrigo's father and at the time a barman in the Europa & Britannia hotel, lent ten thousand lire to a young customer named Harry Pickering to allow him to return to America. Two years later, the young man returned to Venice and as a sign of gratitude he returned the entire sum to Giuseppe, adding 30,000 lire so that he could open his own business. Cipriani then decided to call his restaurant “Harry's Bar” in honor of his benefactor.

Since that distant 13 May 1931, the day of the inauguration, the whole “Bel mondo” has sat in the armchairs of the “Bar”, in front of lower tables than usual and dined in front of a typically dessert mise en place.

European nobles, Hollywood stars, local and international politicians, artists, Nobel laureates and many, many ordinary people, day after day filled the small restaurant room or drank an aperitif sitting at the bar counter. Except on two occasions: the Second World War and during the lockdown due to the recent pandemic, when the place was closed.

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A place where you do not enter in Bermuda shorts, do not take selfies and the use of mobile phones is forbidden with the excuse that: “The magnetic waves interfere with the preparation of spring risotto”, was the hilarious reply of Arrigo in front of a customer protesting. A place where once the waiters were only males while today: “Now I have fantastic waitresses, I would be delighted to have all women, except the barman, of course”, says the owner.

And it is just behind the aperitif counter that Giuseppe invents the Bellini, which has quickly become an international drink, based on peach pulp and prosecco and so called because the pink color of the cocktail reminded him of the color of a saint's toga in a painting by the Venetian painter, Giovanni Bellini.

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The association with the art of painting continued when Giuseppe met the needs of Countess Amalia Mocenigo, whom the doctor forbade to eat cooked meat; he invented a dish based on very thin slices of raw fillet, seasoned with a “Universal” sauce, also of his own invention and excellent for meat and fish.

The color of the raw meat reminded him of the intense red of the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio who in those days was present with an exhibition in the Doge's Palace in Venice.

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Contamination due to the constant frequentation of intellectuals and artists among the tables of Harry's Bar, witnesses of a thousand secrets wrapped in the discretion of the place for its customers. Here was born the meeting and the subsequent poignant love between Callas and Onassis; here Hemingway, passing through Venice before going to Cuba, saw the young noble Adriana Ivancich with whom he had a close correspondence.

Who knows which and how many political and commercial agreements, betrayals and double games have been perpetrated between a risotto and a Venetian liver, served on those dessert mise en place.

Much of the history of the twentieth century has stood within the walls of this National Monument which has taught the world the Art of receiving: You must serve others as you would like to be served. Like in a trattoria, where you immediately feel good. The welcome is a smile, the way to serve. The welcome must also be a little Venetian, certainly Italian” is the philosophy of Arrigo Cipriani.

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