Of all the cocktail bar names out there, ‘Harry’s’ has to be among the most popular, conjuring up images of high quality cocktails served with immaculate style and service, thanks to the standards set by the Ciprianis. Harry’s Bar in Venice came into existence when Giuseppe Cipriani opened the bar in 1931. The circumstance around its opening has become something of cocktail bar lore. Working in the bar at The Europa in Venice, he loaned a ‘down on his luck’ American and long time customer, Harry Pickering, 10,000 lire. Thinking never to see it again, to Cipriani’s amazement Pickering reappeared months later not just with the 10,000 lire, but a further 40,000 on top of it as a thank you. With this the two men co-founded Harry’s Bar (Giuseppe would eventually buy out Pickering’s share of the business for a fair price, minus his not insubstantial bar tab,) in the old cordage warehouse, opening 13th May 1931. Cipriani would go on to solidify his and the Bar’s place in history with the invention of the Bellini, that heady mix of pink Italian peach purée mixed with prosecco.
There’s something I must confess. The first time I visited Harry’s, as it’s known to all and sundry, I was probably no more than 12. Here I was, a child obviously knowing nothing of cocktails, but aware from what my parents had told me that this was one of the great bars of the world. Stood on the precipice of the door set into the bare wall of a very non descript building at the far end of a narrow back street just round from St Mark’s Square, I was expecting to open the door to find myself in the entrance to a luxurious bar in the mould of the American Bar at the Savoy or other similar spaces. What greeted me was an utter disappointment: a single room, plain and brown, rammed with tourists. I can’t remember what I had but my parents ordered Bellinis and were disappointed having had better ones elsewhere.
So, going back, I wasn’t so much apprehensive but determined to keep an open mind and quizzical about whether time, distance, age and a love for cocktails would make me feel different about the bar. Arriving just after 5.30pm so as to miss the tourists, we were shown to the front central table just across from the end of the bar, allowing us a full view of everyone going in and out, the barmen at their work and the staff coming in and out from the kitchen and storage room. I shan’t go into the detail of the furnishings, like the three legged tables purposely chosen to stop the tables wobbling, but what I will say is that, while the bar still has the same brown dated feel I once deplored, now I have a great appreciation for it. The simple yet highly intricate thought out Art Deco panelling makes the room at once cooling and relaxing, so classically Italian. The bar occupying the main part of the back wall with all the tables arranged round it, is raised off the ground so that the barmen go up behind it to make the drinks as if they’re on a stage performing. And perform they do, but not for the audience, they just go about their business mixing the drinks with great skill and with the elegance only years of practice can bring.
We started with the martini (€25), the cocktail that above all my fiancé and I love and for which Harry’s is just as famous as it is the Bellini. Knowing something of how they make their martinis, we had high hopes. Harry’s keeps their martini glasses – a large shot-glass-esq vessel – in the freezer with a splash of vermouth in it. Separately they keep bottles of the gin frozen, so that when ordered all they need do is take the vermouth ladened glass from the freezer and pour in the gin (the sight of thick viscous frozen gin pouring in a thick silken stream from a bottle is, I think, the most beautiful sight I know and never fails to make me smile). What came was a beautifully ice cold martini that had not suffered the cruel fate of touching ice during its birthing. It was crisp, cold and peppery, and as dry as the Sahara. While sharing much in style with Dukes, what it lacked though was a twist, that strip of fragrant lemon that is key to the final tying together and rounding off of a martini, that elevates it and makes it so unbelievably drinkable and thirst quenching. Sadly its other downfall was that it wasn’t stirred, meaning that, by the time you got to the bottom of the glass, far from having a bone dry martini, you had one so wet you could say it was a reverse Montgomery.
By this point of the martini the shift change occurred and a group of tourists and their children had come in; gone are the days of the clientele mostly being Italian nobles and globetrotting mega stars and businessmen. Nonetheless, feeling relaxed and very comfortable, we ordered a second round of drinks, an old fashioned for the fiancé and a margarita for me, both drinks requiring the barman to start from scratch as they don’t keep any parts of them pre-made. Both drinks were decent, if a little watery being served over so much ice, but sadly nothing to write home about.
If you are a cocktail aficionado then Harry’s Venice is of course a must. You won’t bulk at the high cost of the drinks, being used to them in such bars and seeing it as all part of the charge for experiencing the history that the fabled bar represents. What you will bulk at is the tourists and crowds that arrive (at times as large groups of Americans in baseball caps with their children) all with little understanding of what Harry’s truly is, but there just to say they visited the famous bar. So time your visit well, either late in the evening or as a pre dinner drink arriving between 5.15-5.45pm when only the real aficionados are left in the bar, the tourists having headed to the hotel and a bowl of bolognese for the night.