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Hat's Off To Harry

Jonathan van Bilsen



May 3, 2015

Hat's Off To Harry

One of my most favourite aspects of travelling is finding unexpected, hidden gems in unique and exotic locales. One such find was on a recent trip to Venice, where I stumbled upon an establishment called ‘Harry’s Bar’, which was certainly not an Italian sounding place.

Intrigued by this anomaly I decided to venture forth and entered what appeared to be a transition back to the 1930’s. It was certainly a bar, somewhat upscale, but with a uniquely different atmosphere from any other drinking establishment in this famous, Italian city.

I ordered one of their original martinis, which is served in a small glass without a stem. Their dry martinis are very dry, apparently with the ratio of 10 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. The place is also the home of the famous Bellini cocktail, which is known for its pinkish colour (it reminded the bartender of a toga worn by a saint in a painting by Bellini). The drink and consequently the bar became a famous, year-round haunt of Ernest Hemmingway. 

I also discovered that ‘Harry’s Bar’ is where the first Carpaccio was created. This delicious dish of thinly sliced raw meat, fish or vegetables has become a generic term, used by many restaurants and chefs around the world. 

So why is a place in Venice called ‘Harry’s Bar’, especially since it is run by Venetians. The answer is quite interesting and certainly not what I expected.

It seems a bartender, named Giuseppe Cipriani, worked in the Hotel Europa where a very rich Bostonian, named Harry Pickering, was a frequent patron. Suddenly, without notice, Harry stopped visiting the hotel and when Giuseppe finally saw him and asked him why, Harry explained that he was broke because his family found out his drinking habits and cut him off financially. 

The two had grown to be good friends and Ciprian, who was saving to open his own bar, decided to take 10,000 lire (about $5,000) and give it to Harry. Harry was very grateful and said he would repay him.

Time passed and two years later, Pickering returned to the hotel bar, ordered a drink, and gave Cipriani 50,000 lire in return. Stunned and dumbfounded the Italian bartended looked at the money and then at Harry. "Mr. Cipriani, thank you," Harry said. "Here's the money. And to show you my appreciation, here's 40,000 more, enough to open a bar. We will call it Harry's Bar." And later that year, in 1931, Giuseppe Cipriani opened a bar in St. Mark’s square and true to his word named it ‘Harry’s Bar’.

The haunt has become very famous over the years with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Truman Capote and Orson Welles visiting on many different occasions. Today ‘Harry’s Bar’ is synonymous with upscale patrons and the company has branched into the North American market by opening a second ‘Harry’s’ in New York City.

In 2001 the Italian Ministry for Cultural Affairs declared it a national landmark, mostly because of the reputation and history of the place, but also to capitalize on the Cipriani brand, which has become a leader in global cuisine. The family-run business has expanded to include the well-known New York eatery called Cipriani on 42nd Street, as well as downtown Manhattan's famous Rainbow Rooms. They also run a successful travel company, a catering company, and in Buenos Aires have opened three more outlets. In Venice, the Ciprianis also own Harry's Dolci, as well as brand lines of pastas, sauces, olive oils, coffee, books, and kitchenware.

What seemed as a small, unobtrusive bar on a side street in St. Mark’s Square in beautiful picturesque Venice, turned out to be a wealth of interesting facts all centred on a simple martini. Did I mention the price tag for the exquisite drink was $25? Sounds like a lot, but compared to $10 for a coffee and $40 for a bowl of Minestrone, it’s not half bad.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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