Edification at Harry's Bar, Venezia

My career as a cutlery thief was short-lived. After successive daily visits to Harry’s Bar over the course of a Venetian holiday in 2007 I was so keen to take away a physical memento of a final afternoon (spent at what was reputed to be Hemingway’s preferred table) that I pocketed a teaspoon. Guilt then mixed with the pasta in my belly as kind staff — thankful for our repeat custom — proceeded to give me and my wife free Bellinis and Tiramisu in gratitude for our loyal devotion. I considered removing the spoon from my pocket and placing it back on the peach-coloured tablecloth but the thought of potentially being seen by one of them putting the spoon back seemed far worse a crime to their humanity than stealing the spoon itself. Later that evening on the flight home my guilt subsided slightly when I read in Arrigo Cipriani’s book that “There are thousands of customer’s every year who take an ashtray to add to their collection, all of them respectable people, people who have never stolen a thing in their life.” Unfortunately for me, smoking in restaurants had just been banned and so the spoon pressed against my chest in my breast pocket was my yoke instead. Perhaps by way of repentance I always told anyone contemplating visiting Venice of the tale and insisted that they visit Harry’s - specifically to eat too. I hope my account was a deterrent to theft rather than encouragement — it was at least intended as such. As years passed I told that story so many times and infused with such passion that the story itself became just as physical and lasting a memento to me as the spoon itself.  This was fortunate because one day the spoon disappeared — I like to think that it was stolen by someone who appreciated the story too.

As a self-confessed martini aficionado, I feel that whilst on the subject of Harry's I should spend some time pontificating on their version of the martini.  I’ve said before that “if perfection is complexity presented in its most simplest form then the martini must be the most perfect of all things” – if there is any truth at all in that statement then the Harry’s Bar martini deserves to be set on a pedestal in the Gallerie dell'Accademia and given the backdrop of the best Veronese altarpiece.  It is a quite unusual and distinct version of the art-form. Unlike almost any other notable martini in the drinking world the Harry’s Bar offering comes presented in what can only be described as a simple chilled shot glass.  Clouded by frozen translucence the Cipriani logo on the glass’s side is the only nod to aestheticism.  It is said that the method and size of the serving was the result of a desire to offer the coldest possible version of the drink.  The martinis here are typically very dry too. On this point Harry’s has become associated with the Montgomery – 15-parts gin to one-part vermouth. So named by Hemingway after the British General who Hemingway joked, despite his success at El Alamein, would only attack an enemy with a 15:1 advantage in forces.  Hemingway has his protagonist, the demoted Colonel Cantwell, drink these in “Across the River and into the Trees” which features Harry's prominently.

If you do find yourself ready to drink a Montgomery in its birthplace and, like I alluded to above, are wont to partake in table snobbery too, then Hemingway’s wife Mary – writing for Holiday magazine in 1958 – wrote that “seasoned customers ask for the corner table on the Grand Canal side of the room for lunch, to avoid the sunshine slanting through the windows, and at night for the opposite corner with its good view of the bustle at the bar.”  Despite this insight however, you’d similarly do well to take on board the comments of Arrigo Cipriani – again from his own book – who lamented at such custom.  One doesn’t need to steal a spoon to feel both chastised and in search of moral self-improvement by reading that Arrigo quite fairly divided his customers by those with the ability to make any table special by their presence and those who needed a particular restaurant table to do it for them.

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