Simon Hopkinson falls head over heels for the understated charm of Harry's Bar, Venice, while present owner Arrigo Cipriani reveals the recipes for its world-famous dishes, from Carpaccio to croque monsieur.

Before I even begin to talk about Harry's Bar, Venice, allow me to first suggest the following opinion: assuming you have had the good fortune to turn up there at all - whether it be simply for a drink, a coffee, a snack, one single course, or a full-blown lunch or dinner (all options are available) - if you then come away muttering to yourself that you cannot understand what all the fuss is about then I can only think that Harry's Bar is just not for you.

Before I even begin to talk about Harry's Bar, Venice, allow me to first suggest the following opinion: assuming you have had the good fortune to turn up there at all - whether it be simply for a drink, a coffee, a snack, one single course, or a full-blown lunch or dinner (all options are available) - if you then come away muttering to yourself that you cannot understand what all the fuss is about then I can only think that Harry's Bar is just not for you.

Displeasure such as this is experienced by all sorts of people, from all walks of life and in all kinds of establishments every single day. However, I feel there exist those rare institutions where it is usually the dissatisfied party, rather than the establishment, which is to blame. Harry's Bar is one such place. The things it sets out to achieve are always accomplished as well as they possibly could be. To not get this, to simply not see the point at all - and this is fatal - to then begin to make comparisons ... well, how about this: wrong, wrong, wrong. So, in this case you do what seems natural in the circumstances: you vow to never return, you tell everyone you know how much you didn't like it and go elsewhere next time.

Its proprietor, Arrigo Cipriani, on the other hand, has no choice but to continue in exactly the same way as he always has, ever since his father before him, Guiseppe, quietly opened his door to the public in 1931. You may well have edged your way through the door because someone had told you it was one of the many haunts of Ernest Hemingway (there are, let's face it, a lot of those); or perhaps because of the famous fizzy pink drink known as a Bellini; or because it was here that a plate of thinly sliced raw beef called Carpaccio was first served; or, then again, it might simply be because you happen to be an American in Venice. And there are a lot of those too. Indeed, it was an American gentleman, one Harry Pickering, who was responsible for the very existence of Harry's Bar in the first place. For some, there is simply nowhere else in the world they would rather be.

Continuum has everything to do with it. Claudio, for instance - Harry's twinkling, Venetian barman - has been blending Bellinis and mixing Martinis for 30 years now (to watch him up-end the litre of Gordon's Export into the trademark huge glass pitcher, give it a swirl amongst the ice and then expertly measure the contents between 14 tiny glass beakers is one of the great sights of bar tending); Guiseppe, waiter, 21 years service; Mario, waiter, from Sicily, 12 years; for another Mario, manager, it has been 20 years.

Details have also remained unchanged for years: the pale yellow linen tablecloths; the specially designed, monogrammed glasses; the strangely decorated, brown-edged crockery (one eventually hugely warms to it); the chunky, pastel-painted pottery ashtrays; the distinctive, hump-backed sandwiches and tosta (the finest version of croque monsieur you will ever eat); the delicious chicken croquettes; the comfy, low-slung bar chairs. Never has the phrase "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" been more strictly observed than at Harry's.

I purposely set out to "do" Harry's on this visit (someone recently said to me that he felt he'd "done Harry's"; he had been there all of two or three times in his life) and so decided to visit it every day of the week I was to be in Venice. This, let it be said, was not exactly going to be a difficult task, as from previous, occasional visits, I already knew that I liked being here very much indeed. }

If, like me, you relish sitting in a good place observing all that is going on around you, then Harry's is one of the greatest venues in which to do it. Over there in the corner table are the two old-boy regulars in for their lunchtime sandwich, a bloody Mary and a natter; another single fellow in early lunchtime and early evening with his pile of newspapers, coffee, perhaps a drink (whisky?) and always sitting at the same little table behind the curved vestibule of the front door; discreet waving and acknowledgements are commonplace. The waiters here are their friends.

And then there is all the assessing that goes on - the odd raised eyebrow, the occasional look of wide-eyed wonderment, the whispered aside - when someone new appears around that vestibule, and even from those who have, themselves, only arrived a few minutes previously (myself included, naturally). And appear they do, almost as a constant stream at busy times. It seems as if all the world is coming through the door - and, I suppose, they have at one time or another. All are welcomed - though I do sometimes wonder where they are all put! It is further credit to those who work at Harry's Bar that they are multilingual. Can you imagine this being the case in any London bar, however posh? And, you know, Harry's is not at all posh. Chic, noisy, naturally stylish, but it is not posh.

Over the seven days I enjoyed three dinners, one lunch, various snacks, a few bloody Marys and several gin Martinis. The latter is my favourite drink of all at Harry's (lovely as they look in their little glasses, the Bellini is not for me). So pure, crisp and ice-cold it is that every time I put one to my lips a little shiver runs down my spine. They are, quite simply, the best, served as they are in modest little shot glasses, monogrammed and unique to this bar. Two is plenty, let me tell you. The house red, served up in bulbous glass jugs is a model of its kind, the prosecco (the fizzy wine of the region used in the making of a Bellini - never Champagne) is light and fresh, and the coffee is good and hot - the latter seldom found in Venice. }

So, I guess, to the food. Originals, here, remain the benchmark. If you have eaten Carpaccio elsewhere in the world then you might initially be surprised by what is placed before you at Harry's (you may also be surprised by the price, too, but more of that later). No rocket, no Parmesan, no drizzle of olive oil. Simply thinly sliced raw beef with what looks like a criss-cross of salad cream squirted all over it. And that's it. I know that dishes evolve over time and this is inevitable, but it now seems that there isn't one restaurant anywhere in the world but here where anyone respects the origins of the name of the dish.

I quote Arrigo Cipriani here: "It is named for Vittore Carpaccio, the Venetian Renaissance painter known for his brilliant use of reds and whites. My father [Guissepe Cipriani] invented this dish in 1950, the year of the great Carpaccio exhibition." Once and for all, therefore, Carpaccio does not simply refer to something that is thinly sliced.

Having got all that off my chest, here are some of the other things I put in my tummy. A salad of scampi with borlotti beans; a small dish of cardoons; ravioli Piedmontese (stuffed with a veal ragu); trippa alla Parmigiana; tagliolini gratinati; risotto alla primavera; baccala mantecato con polenta; veal chop with butter and sage; crepes alla crema with vanilla ice-cream; chocolate ice-cream. Those which particularly shone were the trippa (rich and deeply savoury), the risotto (even in autumn, this was a triumph and also observing it served in neatly plopped spoonfuls on to the plate by a waiter who has practised doing it in this way for 21 years was an additional joy); the baccala (texturally, a revelation); the tagliolini gratinati (the richest little pasta dish in the universe. Not altogether Italian, yet gorgeous; once again, watching the entire tangle being gathered together into a perfect circle, simply by the use of a spoon and fork and placed on to the plate, was a triumph of waiterly dexterity); the crepes alla crema with vanilla ice-cream (folded pancakes filled with warm custard and flamed with Cointreau so that it cleverly crusts the sugar on top as it burns; need I say more?)

All of this, I am bound to inform you, will cost you some. The Carpaccio alone will set you back 97,000 lire. And, at 3,325 to the pound - the daily exchange rate is printed in the bottom left hand corner of the menu, with nine other currencies including the euro - this works out at £29. I suppose one could say that here is yet another example of the care that goes into the running of this extraordinary place (then again, one might not): we would just like you to know quite how much money you are going to spend while you are with us. Mind you, I cannot think of a more wonderful way in which to get rid of it.

Finally, it is only right that I should enlighten you as to the importance of that young American, Harry Pickering. This is how the story goes, as related by Guiseppe Cipriani in Harry's Bar - The Life and Times of the Legendary Venice Landmark (Arcade Publishing, New York):

 

"Harry Pickering, a quiet young student, was American. He was staying in the hotel [the Europa, where Cipriani was working as bartender at the time] with an old aunt, the aunt's young companion and a dog. All of them were regular customers of the Europa bar.

Harry's family had sent him off to Italy with his aunt to treat an early form of alcoholism. But he was bored travelling the world without friends of his own, and he was drowning his boredom in cocktails. The aunt and her young friends were always good-humoured, and the Pekingese was resigned. The little entourage did not see much of Venice, perhaps a glimpse of Piazza San Marco once a day, but they saw a lot of the bar. With light and easy smiles they ordered every kind of liquor, preferably strong cocktails, but their old faithful was always a double bourbon and 7up, something fizzy to remind them that their throats were still there.

They started about 11 in the morning. They would sit at the bar for aperitifs, have lunch on the terrace overlooking the Grand Canal, and come back to the bar for a drink in the afternoon. The evening was the same. Anyone who wanted to open a small bar would have made a fair profit serving just the three of them, especially Harry, the least cheerful of the group.

They had been at the Europa for two months when Harry had an argument with his aunt and her gigolo, who checked out and left him with the dog. This did not keep Harry from the bar, but he drank less and less. I was alarmed by this unforeseen } change in his habits, and tried to discover the reason for it. I surmised that either Mr Pickering was ill, or his money was running out. The latter was the right one. After a few days, I asked if he needed money. He looked surprised, but hopeful.

"Why," he asked, "would you lend me money?"

"If you needed it," I replied.

I decided to lend him 10,000 lire (the year was 1930), a lot of money for a simple bartender like myself who had started out earning three lire an hour in a pastry shop.

He went off happy, and rather less happy than he, I was left to wait. A month went by, then another, and not a word. But I was sure I had not made a mistake. This Mr Pickering had to be a decent boy. It was written all over his face. That was the winter of 1930. America was in the throes of the Great Depression, but I never lost hope. Finally on a cold February morning I saw him come into the bar. He made quite a fuss over me.

"Cipriani, thank you so much. Here is your money. And to show you how grateful I am, take this as well. We can use it to open a bar together."

"This as well" was 40,000 lire.

"Let's call it Harry's Bar," he said.

And I was happy."

 

PS I am deeply intrigued as to why the publishers of the new edition of The Harry's Bar Cookbook - Stories and Secret Recipes from the World's Greatest Italian Restaurant (Blake Publishing, £19.99) have chosen to mimic the cover of the first River Café Cookbook. I think it may be a gentle dig over a certain newspaper article once claiming that the River Café was the greatest Italian restaurant in all the world - including ltaly! As the by-line "Stories and Secret Recipes from the World's Greatest Italian Restaurant" most certainly was not on the cover of the original publication, I suppose the only person to ask would be Arrigo Cipriani himself. I imagine the only answer you would get would be a twinkle, a raised eyebrow and a polite suggestion that you might like to sit at the bar and order a nice drink.

Croque monsieur

Makes 6 sandwiches

Harry's Bar's version of the French toasted cheese sandwich.

225g Swiss cheese at room temperature, diced

1 large egg yolk

1tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1tsp Dijon mustard

1/8tsp cayenne pepper

salt

cream, if needed, to thin the cheese mixture

12 thin slices homemade-style unsweetened white bread, crusts removed

110g smoked boiled ham, sliced

olive oil for frying

Put the cheese, egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and cayenne in a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process until smooth. Taste and season with salt. If the mixture is too thick to spread easily, thin it with a little cream.

Spread cheese mixture over one side of all bread slices. Arrange ham over the cheese on half the pieces of bread. Invert the remaining bread over ham. Press sandwiches together firmly.

Film the bottom of a heavy skillet with oil and heat it over medium-high heat until very hot. Add as many sandwiches as will fit in the pan and fry, turning once, until they are golden brown and crisp. Repeat with the remaining sandwiches, adding more oil to the pan as necessary. Cut in half and serve hot, wrapped in a paper napkin.

Funghi alla griglia (grilled mushroom caps)

Serves 6

12 large porcini, shiitake, portobello, or white mushroom caps

125ml olive oil

salt

freshly ground black pepper

1 large garlic clove, chopped

1tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

 

Preheat the grill. Wipe the mushroom caps with damp paper towels, put them on a baking sheet and sprinkle with half the olive oil, salt and pepper, and chopped garlic. Let them marinate for 6 to 10 minutes.

Put the mushrooms under the grill, about 4 to 6in (10 to 15cm) from the heat, and let them cook slowly for about 6 or 7 minutes on each side for porcini, 4 or 5 minutes for smaller, less fleshy mushrooms. The mushrooms should be browned but not charred. Serve the mushrooms on a heated platter, sprinkled with chopped parsley, the remaining olive oil, and any pan juices.

Carpaccio

Serves 6 as a first course

Carpaccio is the most popular dish served at Harry's Bar. It was created by my father, inspired by the Contessa Amalia Nana Mocenigo, a frequent customer whose doctor had placed her on a diet forbidding cooked meat.

Carpaccio, which has been copied by any number of good restaurants all over the world, is made by covering a plate with the thinnest possible slices of raw beef and garnishing it with shaved cheese or an olive oil dressing. The genius of my father's invention is his light, cream-coloured sauce that is drizzled over the meat.

We make Carpaccio with beef sirloin, a tender and flavourful cut, and we never freeze it before slicing. Carpaccio can also be made with beef fillet, which has less flavour than sirloin but is much easier to handle. Ask the butcher to trim the meat for you. You may even be able to convince him to slice it - but do so only if you plan to serve it an hour or two later. If you slice the meat yourself, use a razor-sharp knife with a long blade.

1.35kg boned beef sirloin to yield 675g after trimming For the Carpaccio sauce

This tasty sauce for Carpaccio is also used for hamburgers.

 

185ml home-made mayonnaise (see recipe below)

1-2tsp Worcestershire sauce, to taste

1tsp fresh lemon juice

2 to 3tbsp milk

salt

freshly ground black pepper

 

Put the mayonnaise in a bowl and whisk in the Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice. Whisk in enough milk to make a thin sauce that just coats the back of a wooden spoon. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with some salt and pepper and more Worcestershire sauce and/or lemon juice to taste.

 

For the mayonnaise

Mayonnaise will keep for 3 or 4 days in a well-covered container in the refrigerator. Take out only as much as you need and keep the rest chilled.

If you make mayonnaise by hand, use egg yolks only. If you make it in the food processor, use 1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk. A heavy extra-virgin olive oil would overpower the mayonnaise, so use a mild-flavoured, light olive oil.

 

2 large egg yolks or 1 large egg and 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature

2tsp white or red wine vinegar

1/4tsp dry mustard

salt

freshly ground white pepper

375ml olive oil

fresh lemon juice

chicken broth or water as needed to thin the sauce

 

To make mayonnaise by hand, rinse a mixing bowl with hot water and dry it well. Place the 2 egg yolks, vinegar, mustard, and a little salt and pepper in the bowl and beat the mixture with a whisk or an electric mixer at medium speed until very well blended. Add 125ml of the oil drop by drop, beating constantly. Continuing to beat, add the rest of the oil in a thin stream, being careful to incorporate all the oil to form an emulsion. When all the oil has been absorbed, season the mayonnaise to taste with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Beat in a little broth or water if you wish to thin the mayonnaise.

To make mayonnaise in a food processor or blender, put 1 egg, 1 egg yolk, the vinegar, the mustard, a little salt, and a few grinds of pepper in the bowl of the processor fitted with the steel blade and blend well. With processor running, add the oil in a thin, steady stream. When the mayonnaise is emulsified and all the oil has been absorbed, scrape it into a bowl and adjust the seasoning to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Beat in a little broth or water if you wish to thin the mayonnaise.

 

Trim every bit of fat, sinew, or gristle from the boned sirloin, leaving a small cylinder of tender meat. Chill the meat well. Using a razor-sharp knife, slice the meat paper-thin. Arrange the slices of meat on 6 salad plates to cover the surface completely. Drizzle the sauce decoratively over the meat in ribbons. Serve immediately.

Harry's Bar, San Marco 1322, Venice (0039 041528 5777)

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