Among the famous inventions of Cipriani at Harry’s Bar in Venice is, of course, the Bellini, a heady mix of pink Italian peach purée mixed with prosecco. But Harry’s Bar Florence has at times laid claim to being home of the Bellini. The Florence bar is set on the great River Arno that cuts the magnificent Medici city in half. Opened in 1953, it hasn’t really changed since. The bar is the only non Cipriani owned Harry’s to actually have a link to it, having been founded by two bartender friends of Cipriani: Raffaello Sabatini (who trained under the legendary Harry Craddock at the Savoy in London) and Enrico Mariotti. Giuseppe Cipriani gave his support and advice as they went about decorating, kitting out and opening the bar. He even suggested they open it as a Florentine branch of Harry’s rather than naming it Boston Bar, and sent his trusted barman and cook to help them set up and get the drinks and food right.
The issue over the Bellini? Well it is the home of the white Bellini, using white peaches rather than the pink peaches of Harry’s Venice, though one of their former barmen used to claim that he invented the Bellini before Cipriani when at a former bar, but with champagne rather than Cipriani’s use of prosecco. We had been told by Alessandro Palazzi to say hello to the head barman, not just because he is a superb barman, but because, as Alessandro said, ‘he has the best name in the business’ – Thomas Martini. I mean how perfect is that for a barman!? Unfortunately, on our first visit to the bar he wasn’t there. Nonetheless, we settled down, tucked in the corner on the far side of the bar (we later learned this is the favourite table of the long time regular locals given its all seeing position).
The room is certainly darker lit, though with light pink walls, and the bar a larger and more imposing feature set central to the room and protruding into the centre of it, than at Harry’s Venice. One feature of the bar is that, thanks to the pink walls, the staff wear peppermint green jackets instead of the light traditional white jacket of the Italian barman and waiter.
We started with a martini (€20) and were, I’m sad to say, very disappointed. The drink was only slightly chilled (the room was extremely warm and the bottles are just on the shelves behind the bar) and wasn’t just wet with excess vermouth, it was very watery. A nice feature of the bar, though, is that they bring you a plate of selected hot and cold aperitivo to have with your drinks. In Venice it was just a bowl of the standard large green olives that all the best bars now provide. The follow up old fashioneds, however, were on point, and came with not just a second plate of aperitivo but a new selection of them too!
We certainly enjoyed the bar; the staff are wonderfully friendly and the atmosphere is old school Italian, though more stripped back rococo than the Art Deco of Venice. But, on the strength of the drinks, we were in two minds about returning for a pre dinner drink in a couple of nights time, when we’d be off for a superb Bistecca A La Florentina at one of the best spots for it just across the river. However, the good points and the knowledge that the drinks had not been made by the talked of skills of Thomas Martini, persuaded us to return. And I’m glad we did. On our return, standing out among the sea of green jacketed waiters was a short man in a black suit and a stern expression to whom all, even the restaurant’s maitre d’, deferred and sought approval from before even laying a table for dinner. This was the vaunted Thomas Martini.
After we had taken the same table as before, he came over with the menus before heading off again. When he came back, as requested, we passed on Alessandro’s regards and for the first time that night a smile, a beaming smile, crossed Thomas’ face as we talked martinis and Alessandro (he had recently been in London and drinking at Dukes). It will not shock you that martinis were ordered and this time they were as different from the martinis we had ordered on our previous visit as Chinese and Japanese food are different. Each was bone dry and as chilled as possible given the warmth of the bar, and fragrant with lemon; a fine martini and enjoyed while chatting with Thomas and snacking on the aperativo. He was somewhat surprised we could stand a second drink (unfortunately the fiancé and I are too used to a Dukes martini) but was more than happy to supply us with refreshing, perfectly crafted, mojitos and a second set of snacks.
Harry’s Bar Florence is a fine bar and I can see why many prefer it to Harry’s Bar in Venice. It is peaceful and calm where Venice is a constant hive of noise and activity. If you’re not a fan of that stripped back interwar Italian mingling of Art Deco and modernism that is the style in Venice, then the early 20th century decor of Florence is likely to be more your cup of tea. Drinks wise it’s hard to say; as long as Thomas Martini is making your drink, you are assured a cocktail of the same quality and craft as in Venice and any leading bar.