Harry's Bar in Venice, Italy

Gliding to Harry's Bar for dinner in Venice
Gliding to Harry's Bar for dinner in Venice

In the words of Martin Bernheimer, “Los Angeles audiences give a standing ovation when the conductor wears matching socks.” Hitting the high Cs on the high seas seemed a clever way of getting opera fans together on a cruise through the Mediterranean. Los Angeles Opera was still in its infancy but the company had already delivered the most talked-about “Salome” ever when Maria Ewing brought the Dance of the Seven Veils to its natural conclusion with full frontal nudity.  Amidst the usual “Madama Butterfly”, “La Boheme” and “Carmen” offerings we were gifted with a stark presentation of  Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel” and an “Aida” which became the talk of the opera world when one of the humongous plastic elephants dropped one of its ears right into the orchestra pit.  The clatter stopped the performance and the Dorothy Chandler auditorium was overcome with fits of violent laughter.  A memorable experience – it took several minutes to continue with the music.  Even Verdi would have enjoyed it, I think. 

Peter Hemmings, an elegant, soft-spoken British impresario had finally given Los Angeles an opera company and for that we were grateful. Sailing on a behemoth ship in the Mediterranean is not the best way to cruise, whereas the yacht-like experience of docking or anchoring at smaller, more interesting ports allows you to disembark in a more civilized manner.  Crystal Symphony is a big ship but the itinerary sounded inviting and the musical companions top tier.  Aside from Hemmings and his delightful wife Jane, there would be special lectures by the incredibly gifted Pulitzer prize winning music critic, Martin Bernheimer and operatic recitals with Maria Ewing the multitalented actress and singer.  We would be traveling from Athens to Rome with overnight stays in the ports of Venice and Cannes, also visiting Valletta, Malta and Taormina, Sicily.  What a deal!

There were only about 16 of us listed as the Los Angeles Opera group and we met most every afternoon for informative lectures followed by discussions.  Mr. Bernheimer played our professor with an irrepressible sense of humor and Maria Ewing proved herself to be most generous and accessible. When Crystal Symphony docked alongside the Grand Canal in Venice, we disembarked and walked to Harry’s Bar, a short stroll across the Piazza San Marco. We made a dinner reservation for that night at 7:30 and spent the afternoon walking the alleyways, revisiting old haunts: The Accademia with men rushing to catch the water bus carrying century old cello cases, the sounds of a soprano vocalizing, a piano playing scales, a young man standing near a cafe playing the flute. There were artisans creating pieces of jewelry,  On the Rialto Bridge we stopped for gelato, scanned the Venetian glass beads and watched the fisherman laying out the catch of the day.  The pigeons would fly around and dive bomb near a group of tourists in the piazza as workmen carrying works of art and massive sculptures into the doorway of a crumbling Palazzo.  Locals and tourists ate pasta with seafood in overcrowded and overpriced restaurant patios.  Glassblowers had set up a stand and a few novices were making colorful ashtrays while the population surrounding them tried to give up smoking.  The Gondolas swanned by as gondoliers belted out, “O Sole Mio” to the embracing honeymooners.  There is a peaceful serenity about the Queen of the Adriatic even when the action seems like bedlam.  It is incredibly beautiful chaos.

When we arrived for dinner at Harry’s Bar we noticed that all the tables were taken except for a long table next to us which was set for 10.  We ordered a cocktail and a appetizer of prosciutto with figs.  As our divine homemade pasta arrived so did the party of ten.  A tall, elegant man took his place at the head of the table and sat after his guests were seated.  The man sitting at the foot of the table immediately perused the wine list, huddled with the sommelier pointed to a selection and nodded.  Then a server approached the man with the menu.  Again, he pointed, whispered to the server and nodded.  Two bottles of red wine were opened and the man poured a small amount into a wine glass, tasted and nodded his approval, repeating the action with the second bottle.  The wine was then poured for the other diners at the table.  The gentleman at the head of the table, stood and made his toast in French.  As I glanced up at him I suddenly realized who he was. I whispered to my husband, “Do you know who the host at the next table is?”  He shook his head.  “It’s Jacques Chirac, the former president of France.” As we ate our delectable pasta, a huge tureen of soup was brought to the man at the foot of the table.  This time he took a silver spoon out of his jacket pocket dipped it into the soup and took one taste.  Now I understood, this was President Chirac’s taster. 

Several moments later four Italian waiters brought a birthday cake to one of the diners, singing Happy Birthday in a wonderful Italian accent.   The entire dining room joined in singing. The Englishwoman was so overcome that she stood up to say thank you.  A couple from Bombay, India stood up and toasted her.  I chimed in with best wishes from the people of America.  A few more people followed -- from Japan, Germany and New Zealand.  When things calmed down, Mr. Chirac rose up to add the most special wishes from the people of France.  Now everybody in the dining room was standing and applauding.  It was a thrilling scene. The waiters poured glasses of Champagne for all the diners and we toasted the woman with a loud international version of Happy Birthday.  It was a heart-warming and triumphal moment.  A mini United Nations of people engaged with one another.  Dazzling.  We all stood for several beats and I thought back to Martin Bernheimer’s remark about how Los Angeles audiences give a standing ovation when the conductor wears matching socks. Well it's possible that the conductor was Jacques Chirac or perhaps it was the lovely Englishwoman who was celebrating her birthday. This was the most splendid standing ovation I've ever witnessed.  It was a once in a lifetime occasion at Harry’s Bar in Venice.


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Lucien Lacomb January 24, 2014 at 04:31 PM
Jacques Chirac is my favorite person in my native country. What a marvel you have written. He was the best thing to ever happen to my country. He was a most popular leader. He lowered taxes and instituted good social policies. He was always accessible too. What a wonderful story!
Irene DeBlasio January 24, 2014 at 04:56 PM
I wish we had a Jacques Chirac here as well as a Harry's Bar. Arrigo Cipriani (Harry himself) told us a story about the fact that when his father opened the restaurant Hemingway would go there on a regular basis for an American hamburger. The place became so popular that one night there were five heads of Europe dining there at separate tables, two of which were royalty. Thank you for your comment.
Geraldo Cruz January 24, 2014 at 05:58 PM
That's a great story, Ms. D!
Irene DeBlasio January 24, 2014 at 06:29 PM
@GeraldoCruz I appreciate loyal readers like you. Many thanks for your comment.
Geraldo Cruz January 24, 2014 at 06:31 PM
Mr. D.I was wondering about the way in to Venice and where exactly there are cars (if any at all). Can you tell me a little about the whole question of transportation?
Irene DeBlasio January 24, 2014 at 07:02 PM
@GeraldoCruz The Lido is the beach resort of Venice and you can drive there. These resorts are quite posh but ideal for summer travel or for families with kids. "Death in Venice" was filmed there. You can take a water taxi to the main part of Venice which is closed to all vehicles. Most tourists do the train route - Rome, Florence, Venice -- the train station has a Venice stop and you can hail a water taxi to your hotel. If you want to fly in - I recommend Alitalia from JFK in New York. It has flights directly to Venice and you can buy a launch ticket which takes you and your baggage from the airport to your hotel. The best approach is by ship. As I explained, the smaller yacht-like ships - Silversea, Windstar, Oceania have cruises from Athens to Venice, or starting from the other direction Monte Carlo or Rome to Venice. The Adriatic can get rough but any leg of the Mediterranean is worth sailing. The legs are usually Lisbon to Barcelona, Barcelona to Rome, Rome to Venice or Athens, Athens to Istanbul and reverse. Great question. Thank you.
Geraldo Cruz January 24, 2014 at 07:42 PM
Wow thanks for taking the time to answer! It sounds great. Now all I need is for someone to pay for my trip and I'll be set!
Irene DeBlasio January 24, 2014 at 08:07 PM
@GeraldoCruz There are summer classes for all ages in Italy. Pietrasanta is near Cinque Terre -- you can learn to sculpt at a summer school. It happens to be where Michelangelo chose his own marble and learned to sculpt too. Fine arts, Italian lessons, music schools -- by August 15 Italians have left home and gone to the beach, mountains or lake region. If you're an entertainer, barber or hairdresser you might be able to find work on a ship. It's possible -- don't give up!
Lucien Lacomb January 24, 2014 at 10:58 PM
What are some of your favorite foods when you visit Venice? Are there other specialties you particularly enjoy eating in Italy?
Irene DeBlasio January 25, 2014 at 12:43 AM
@LucienLacomb Deep fried Jerusalem artichokes made in the Jewish section of Rome, Gelato anywhere in Italy, Pizza in Sorrento or Naples, Risotto and Polenta made in the north, Arancini (rice balls stuffed with peas and sausage), Bellini (Prosecco with fresh peach juice), Bronzino (fresh sea bass - roasted), Gnocchi - with any topping. eggplant rolls, fresh tomato salad, Florentine steak, sardines with pasta, parmesan cheese chunks, fresh peas, fresh olives, oil with balsamic vinegar for dipping bread, mozzarella in carozza, nearly any type of pasta especially handmade at Harry's bar, prosciutto with figs or any melon. I'm not very fond of pesto which is the big dish in the Cinque Terre. The custom I love the most is the passegiatta which begins at 6 PM. Entire towns walk through the town square before dinner and he siesta after a delicious lunch al fresco.
Lucien Lacomb January 25, 2014 at 11:12 AM
Aside from the Jewish settlement in Rome where are some others located? What restaurant in Rome do you recommend for the delicious deep fried artichokes?
Irene DeBlasio January 25, 2014 at 12:13 PM
@LucienLacomb Da Giggetto is my favorite restaurant in the Jewish settlement in Rome for deep fried Jerusalem artichokes. They also feature stuffed zucchini flowers and good pasta. As for other Jewish settlements in Italy there's a quiet residential one in Venice which has 5 synagogues, a yeshiva, two kosher markets and the signage is in Hebrew. I'm not sure what the population is but it is more like a quaint village to the left of the railroad station. It is called Cannareggio. Venetians will tell you that it was the Jews in Venice who were the original glass blowers. Italy has many Jewish settlements which still exist and have vibrant life. Aside from the one in Rome and Venice there are strong settlements in Umbria, Livorno in particular, Sicily, Sardinia and Ancona on the Adriatic coastline. These are great centers of Jewish life and carry their traditions and customs to the younger generations as a proud heritage. Wonderful question.
Ilona Saari January 25, 2014 at 01:12 PM
Love Harry's Bar - finally a decent martini in Italy <g> -- and loved those little grilled cheese appetizers you can get at the bar... After being in Italy forever, I needed a cheeseburger and "Harry" didn't disappoint. The Harry's Bar I spent time in was the one in Florence where Leo, who is now running the Bars was in residence. Richard, Leo and I all bonded and he took us to the back where a broken chair was 'enshrined' because Hemingway broke it in a drunken rage. ;o)
Ilona Saari January 25, 2014 at 01:13 PM
Wrote an article about "my" Harry's Bar and put it on my blog...
Irene DeBlasio January 25, 2014 at 03:03 PM
@IlonaSaari Agreed - a Harry's Bar cheeseburger can save your life in Italy. My only regret is not having taken a Marcella Hazan cooking class at the Cipriani's Hotel in Venice. I love the food in both places and enjoyed your wonderful blog post. You could spend a lifetime following Hemingway around on his travels. He spent quite a bit of time in France and Spain too -- breaking chairs, eating and drinking. It's a wonder he had any time to write. Thanks so much for leaving a comment -- hugs to you and Richard.
Ruth Salvatierra January 26, 2014 at 02:45 AM
I've never been to Europe. I've never been on a cruise. I'm 76 and it's still at the top of my bucket list. Thank you for the virtual cruise. Your article is so descriptive I was mentally following along. Thanks so much for sharing. Ruth Salvatierra
Donna Carsten January 26, 2014 at 11:12 AM
Harry's Bar the birthplace of the Bellini! Sounds like a magical night
kinder1.maree January 26, 2014 at 11:32 AM
I enjoyed your article about Harry's Bar and Venice. It brought back wonderful memories. My family and I were in Venice in 2001 and had lunch at Harry's Bar. We were familiar with its notoriety and thought it would be fun. I remember the restaurant being quite sophisticated and charming. However, we did not spot anyone recognizable. What a treat to be dining with Jacques Chirac. My highlight of Venice was spending my birthday in a gondola on the Grand Canal while listening to opera singers and a 6 piece orchestra floating along the canal with us. Magical. Thanks for reminding me of that amazing trip.
Irene DeBlasio January 26, 2014 at 01:16 PM
@RuthSalvatierra You are young enough to enjoy Italy. You should ask your family and friends to make a cash donation for an escorted tour of the best highlights of Italy. My first visit in my youth was a Perillo Tour (they've been in the tour business since 1945 and can arrange a Marco Polo Tour) -- you fly into Venice and spend 2 or 3 nights, Florence for a couple of nights and Rome for 3. In a brief period of time it will give you enough of a taste and you will have completed one goal on your bucket list. Most people want to see these three cities the most. Believe me, I have visited Italy many times and have explored it in depth. As much as I adore Sicily, Sorrento, the Lake Region, Tuscany, the Adriatic, the Dolomites and the Alps, the big three should be attainable. If you need any information, please add another comment and I'll be happy to help. Thank you for taking the time to read my post and comment.
Irene DeBlasio January 26, 2014 at 01:35 PM
@DonnaCarsten Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic and Harry's Bar, home of the Bellini -- it doesn't get better than that. Harry's Bar is an institution to world travelers. The first time I visited it was so crowded that I recall having a Bellini which was delicious but not being able to dine there (45 to 60 minute wait for a table). On another trip my sister and I had lunch downstairs and met the wonderful Arrigo Cipriani (Harry). He regaled us with stories his father told him about the birth of the restaurant and reserved a table in the upstairs dining room for us one night for dinner. What a treat. Aside from my mother's homemade pasta Harry's is top notch. Great burgers for homesick Americans too Thank you for the comment.
Irene DeBlasio January 26, 2014 at 01:53 PM
@kinder1.maree Your mention of your birthday is so vivid. When my dear sister had a short time to live she said that her only regret was never having visited Venice. I arranged for a trip for us and your memory is so similar to mine. She and I took a gondola ride down the Grand Canal to the Piazza San Marco and heard the music from the Florian Café. There were wonderful scenes of tourists and locals enjoying the magic of Venice -- just like a scene out of "Summertime" with Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi. My sister died of cancer eight months later. Thanks so much for sharing your own memory with us.
Lucien Lacomb January 27, 2014 at 07:33 PM
You are so right about those big ships. Explorer of the Seas -- a 3.000 plus passenger ship has now 600 ill passengers and must return to its home port. The smaller ships do not force passengers into the dining rooms or any public rooms at the same time. Illness probably stays better confined. I would never want to go on one of those floating condos -- there's always some problem. Thank you for the good advice about ship travel.
Irene DeBlasio January 29, 2014 at 06:57 PM
@LucienLacomb The one and only place where I enjoy sailing on a large ship is in the Caribbean -- the more the merrier. Having lived in Puerto Rico (where my father owned a factory) after a while most of the islands begin to look alike. The accents are different but most Americans go to the area to buy duty-free merchandise, lie on the beach and drink. I was on a tender boat returning to our anchored ship once and three very drunk passengers fell overboard. We circled around until the crew were able to secure them and lift them back into the tender. There were only about ten people in the dining room that night. The Mediterranean, Aegean and Adriatic are so much better to visit on a small ship which can get into more exotic ports.


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