Monday, February 2, 2009

A Pilgrimage to Harry's Bar, Birthplace of the Bellini

For foodies, few places in the world hold the legendary status of Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy, for this bar and restaurant boasts many claims to fame.

Carpacchio, a dish of paper think slices of raw beef served drizzled with olive oil that’s now served at fine restaurants all over the USA got its start at Harry’s Bar, but the place is probably best known as the birthplace of the Bellini cocktail.

Italy already had a long tradition of marinating fresh peaches in wine before Giuseppe Cipriani invented the drink in 1948, but the inventive bartender took the concept to new heights when he mixed white peach puree with Prosecco (Italy's version of champagne). The drink was simple but delicious and instantly became a classic at the famous Venice bar and later at its New York counterpart.

Because of its unique color, which reminded him of the color of a sunset in a painting by 15th-century Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini, Cipraiani named the drink the Bellini. The rest is history. The drink is still popular today and in true classic cocktail fashion has spawned numerous imitations and variations.

Aside from ts culinary creations, Harry’s Bar became famous because of the famous patrons who have frequented it throughout the years including Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, Arturo Toscanini, Charlie Chaplin, Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas, Truman Capote, Orson Welles, and countless other luminaries.

So on a recent trip to Italy, I, like any other self respecting foodie, made a pilgrimage to the famous Harry’s Bar. I was surprised at how unassuming it was – even though it is right on the waterfront, it’s easy to walk past without even noticing it. A small sign etched into in window (photo left) and the etched glass door are your only clues.

Inside the place looks much the same as it always did – rich wood paneling surrounds aisles of tables navigated by what appears to be way too many bustling waiters for the small size of the room. Upstairs and most of downstairs are occupied by dining tables, the bar itself taking up just a small quarter of the downstairs. Even our bartender had been a fixture at Harry's for the past 40 years.

So was this pilgrimage worth it and should you bother to go out of your way to go to Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy? Probably not, unless it’s important to you to say you’ve been there. To be fair, we didn’t dine, as the prices were far beyond our means – even on an indulgent vacation's budget. We did stop in for cocktails though – to be specific the famous Bellini.

From the minute we got into the door, the experience somewhat reminded me of Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans. Not that the two places are anything alike beyond both being bars, but in that they are both on the tourist radar and they know it. Likewise, they know they don’t have to try.

The prices at Harry’s are beyond exorbitant, and staff are curt at best, trying to herd you in and out as quickly as possible. The Harry's Bar bellini, which comes in a small juice-sized glass, ran 15 Euros a piece (as of September, 2007) – that’s close to thirty bucks a drink US.

Was it good? Yes. But not that good. While Harry’s was probably never a bargain, I can’t imagine things were this absurd in Hemmingway’s day. You can get just as good a Bellini at the Belaggio's Fontana Bar in Las Vegas, at a fraction of the price (and if you've ever been to the Belaggio, you know it's not cheap). If you go to Harry's Bar for dinner or lunch, expect the food prices to be in proportion with that of the Bellini, so save up.

More than any other part of the experience, I did enjoy the look of the place. Wood has a way of absorbing history. The rich paneling and touches like the simple art deco clock hanging above the bar, and even the bartender himself, reminded me that I was in a culinary museum of sorts. And as we’ve lost so many such places, I’m glad Harry’s still exists… I guess. The Harry’s Bar of today just doesn’t live up to the hype, so even if I was in Venice again, I wouldn’t go back. Once was more than enough and I left feeling like a typical tourist chump, which in fact, I was. But I guess occasionally being a chump is part of the tourist experience.

Bellini Recipe and Variations
Click the links below for the recipe for a classic Bellini along with some nouvelle variations.

More on Venice
While Harry's Bar could have been skipped, the rest of Venice and its surrounding area was incredible. We got an unusual view of this most unique area of the world by taking a live-aboard barge cruise that allowed us explore the entire region, including the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello, and the city of Padua, along with Venice itself. Click here to read that travel story and check out the photos.


Pam said...

I've always wanted to try a Bellini, now I really do.

Cheri Sicard said...

They are Zen-like in their simplicity, but very delicious. I make them every year when good peaches are in season, but in a pinch at other times of year you can make them with Peach Nectar, not quite as sublime, but still a delicious brunch cocktail.

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