Food and Drink: Feasting on a fight to the death in Venice

IT IS not that ill-tempered arguments among gastronomes are unknown here in Venice, but they tend to consist of sniping, back- stabbing and a lot of private denunciations about overfed egos and spurious connoisseurs. When Harry Cipriani, of Harry's too- bloody-famous Bar in Venice, went after the self-styled 'dean' of Italian food writers, Luigi Veronelli, he did so with a broadsword, in the open, and in the pages of one of Italy's most prestigious papers.

Quarrels between restaurateurs and food critics are only to be expected. When James Agate called a play of Oscar Wilde's 'all Sodom and Begorra', or when Robert Benchley said of a noted actress, 'Pardon me, Madam, but your show is slipping', neither really intended to improve their target's audience. Chefs and restaurateurs have no greater resistance to vanity than the thespians they have come to resemble. As public figures they have to expect slings and arrows, not to speak of brickbats; but they have come to expect - indeed demand - fawning and sycophancy.

In my experience, they seldom mind adverse criticism all that much, so long as it comes from someone knowledgable, a criterion that is not easy to define; and the rest they can dismiss out of hand. But even the most inexperienced food critic can have a detrimental effect on cash flow - hence the howls of protest at 'unfairness', and the whispering campaigns against those who become critics with the sole aim of making a name for themselves and eating at someone else's expense. Cipriani versus Veronelli is not a case of that sort, though both pique and money do enter into it.

I take it that most people who have been to Venice, or who have read Hemingway (who often ate there in the 'great old days' when Harry's father, Giuseppe, presided), know Harry's Bar, near St Mark's. It is a landmark in a city all but destroyed by its tourists, in economic decline, and not noted for its gastronomy - by geography its only local ingredient is fish, and by history its cooking is an uneasy mix of Austria and the Near East. But it is not all that good a restaurant. In Veronelli's words, it will do - but no more.

Not so many know Luigi Veronelli, so you will have to take it from me that he is a power in Italian gastronomy and, more significantly, economically, in the wine business. We do not - being the contentious, free-market-of-ideas sorts - have the like in Britain.

There is no doubting Veronelli's seriousness; nor his financial acumen; nor his penchant for cuisine nouvelle - which traditional Italians despise as 'a precious invention for those who lack appetite but have money to burn'; nor his ferocious backing of Italy's chief importer of such subversive French ideas, the chef/restaurateur Gualtiero Marchesi.

The fun part of this duel (it began a fortnight ago with a letter from Cipriani to la Stampa) is that both men are right by their lights: Cipriani to think that Veronelli and his colleagues at l'Espresso magazine's restaurant guide have 'put paid to Italian cooking', and Veronelli to have thought that the old lady needed some fresh thinking.

Cipriani tells of the day when two painters, Matta and de Chirico, were dining at his home. When Matta was introduced to de Chirico, he is reported to have asked: 'Which one is this? The real or the fake?' Cipriani believes that all the new-fangled culinary importations are really fakes (de Chirico being, with Vlaminck, the modern painter with the greatest number of fakes on the market), the result of an unholy 'alliance between certain greedy cooks and a few ex-journos and ex-athletes' (l'Espresso magazine) and a 'puzzled bourgeois suddenly propelled into gastronomical luxury' (Veronelli). The stars and toques offered to their many 'idiot' readers forced cooks, led by a bunch of 'French anorexics', to search for 'cum laudes' from these guides, and become 'experts in the surgical dissection of Swiss quail'. Strong words.

Veronelli replied: 'All I said was that there was a difference between Harry and his father . . . It was Harry's choice to cater to the middle- class American, not to go in for great food or wine.' Ouch] Here too there is truth, for Harry's Bar is neither traditional (meaning regional) nor inventive; it is simply bland.

The sour note comes from the accusation that Veronelli's power caused restaurateurs like himself to 'dig cellars hundreds of feet deep', implying that Veronelli had an interest in the 'fine wines' he so relentlessly promoted - ie, that money did his talking.

The truth is that while I am no admirer of Veronelli's tastes in food, he, and even the French, have done some good to Italian cooking, insisting on fresh ingredients and greater simplicity. They have also created a new class of gastronomic snobs, and that - in the land of cucina povera, of frugal, balanced but rich, eating - is not a good thing. Perhaps I could offer my services, to either duellist, as a second?