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Everyone's Wild About Harry's, the Fabled Bar in Venice That Arrigo Cipriani Commands

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“The Contessa is not at home, my Colonel,” he said. “They believe you might find her at Harry’s.”

“You find everything on earth at Harry’s.”

“Yes, my Colonel. Except, possibly, happiness.”

In 1949 when Ernest Hemingway was writing those lines in his novel Across the River and into the Trees, he would come into Harry’s Bar in Venice each morning at 10 and order a martini, 15 parts gin, one part vermouth. Like Hemingway, the Old Guard at Harry’s—Elsa Maxwell, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Sinclair Lewis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor—have long since gone. Instead, one night last month, it was John Belushi, his wife Judy Jacklin, Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal who closed the place. The names change; the popularity of Harry’s Bar does not.

For 50 years the unique Venetian watering hole, founded by Giuseppe Cipriani and now run by his son Arrigo, has been an international crossroads. Its food is acknowledged as the finest in Venice. Even the dogs of customers are fed extravagantly well—rice, chopped meat and vegetables at $10 a bowl—and they do not have to pay the $2 cover.

Located a few blocks from Piazza San Marco on the Grand Canal, behind nondescript swinging doors and a crumbling facade, Harry’s is strikingly simple. Downstairs is a small, noisy room with a marble-topped bar and minuscule tables. There are more tables on the second floor. Diners’ conversation must compete with the cooks banging their pots, but when the kitchen was moved upstairs in 1960, there were so many complaints, it was moved back down immediately. When Arrigo Cipriani makes improvements—he spent $200,000 this year, mostly on padded walls to absorb sound—they must go unnoticed.

“It is the human atmosphere,” says Cipriani, “that distinguishes Harry’s. The spirit of the people who are here pervades the room.” The restaurant has been popularized by word of mouth. It has never advertised, and most tourists pass it by without a glance. That’s fine with Cipriani: “I don’t want clients who come in because they’re looking for an ordinary bar.”

On rare occasions Cipriani will transport a bit of Harry’s magic. Last June, when the economic summit conference was held in Venice, he catered a dinner at the Doge’s Palace for President Carter and the six other heads of state. The menu included filet of sole, beef filet and rice with asparagus. Don’t ask for the recipes. “If the Ciprianis give you one,” a longtime customer says, “they never tell the truth. Some ingredient is altered or omitted.”

Giuseppe Cipriani was a bartender at the Hotel Monaco in Venice in 1930 when he began planning his restaurant. He did not have sufficient capital, but gambled on lending some of his savings to a young American named Harry Pickering, who was accompanying an elderly aunt on a European tour. Six months later Pickering returned with a fortune inherited from the aunt, who had died. Cipriani was soon in business, using his benefactor’s name.

He began serving haute cuisine after World War II, about the same time he concocted the Bellini, one-third fresh peach juice and two-thirds sparkling white wine. The $5 drink, a staple at Harry’s, was named for a painter then exhibiting at the Doge’s Palace.

Although Giuseppe gets credit for the Bellini and the bar’s ambience, Arrigo, 48, is proud of his own contributions. He installed a computer for billing and administration and a printing press to turn out the daily menu in three languages. He has also changed the cuisine to lighter dishes. Everything is fresh. Harry’s even cures its own anchovies. Like the food, the prices are seasonal—and high. Lunch for two may cost $75, though no one is ever snubbed for ordering a chicken salad sandwich and iced tea ($1.30). Certain regulars get a 20 percent discount on their bills.

Arrigo’s fanaticism with the bar now matches Giuseppe’s. “When I was young my father would get annoyed at my other interests,” he recalls, “even if I dedicated just one day a week to them.” An only son, Cipriani admits he did not enjoy the first five years he spent working in the business. “As children,” he recalls, “we rarely came here. We saw our father on Sundays. Mostly our mother told us about him. I graduated from law school with honors and that same day began sitting behind the cash register at the bar. I hated it. Now it is my passion.”

His outlet is karate, which he took up 13 years ago after a bout with ulcers. Cipriani now instructs children at a nearby studio two mornings a week and occasionally will use his iron-like grip to propel an obnoxious customer into the street.

His wife, Tommasina, two daughters (Carmela, 22, a law student, and Giovanna, 17) and son (Giuseppe, 16) rarely visit the bar, and none of the children has yet expressed interest in taking a hand in its operations. (Arrigo’s younger sister Carla runs an inn and superb restaurant on the nearby island of Torcello. The elegant, world-famous Hotel Cipriani elsewhere in Venice is no longer in the family.)

Through the years Harry’s Bars have sprouted up in Paris, Munich, London, New York, Rome and Florence, but they are all imitators. The Ciprianis have a stake only in the Venice operation. The original has proved impossible to copy. One Venetian dowager sums it up: “Harry’s Bar has existed since I was born. Other places don’t exist.”