Lisa writes…A friend just arrived from Milan called with a lunch invitation. Harry’s Bar? Sure.
‘Marvellous. Arrigo’s sending the boat. Can you be ready in ten minutes?”
Because sometimes good things do happen to good people. It’s not often you get to feel like a hypocrite and a sycophant in a single Friday morning. While the Locanda Cipriani on Torcello might be my favourite restaurant in the world, I have been rude about Harry’s Bar in the past. I have been rude about the food, the space, the waiters and in particular the clients, indeed not so much rude as vituperatively insulting. Never about the great man himself, who is deservedly one of Venice’s best- known and best- loved figures but oh dear, I was horrid about the Bellinis.
And here I was being handed into the launch by Alvise, Signor Cipriani’s driver and swishing across the lagoon and feeling very much as though I had Arrived in Society with shame roiling in my treacherous heart. Best apply the maxim used by John Betjeman with reference to the Ritz, that nothing nasty could possibly ever be allowed to happen here and assume that Signor Cipriani is far too grand to read the British papers.
We had a gorgeous lunch. Harry’s is unbeatable if what you want is the very best rendition of classic Venetian recipes- doll-sized tramezzini with anchovy butter, tiny carciofini brought over from the Cipriani garden on Torcello that morning, dressed in oil and lemon and laid reverently on a piste of fresh ricotta, fine, flowing risotto with sticky, juicy chicken livers, then Harry’s carpaccio, the original and inimitable, translucent and tender as a Bevilacqua velvet. We were seated next to the “Senators’ Table”, once reserved from 11 am to 12.30 pm every day for the customers who were present on the first day the bar opened in 1931 and still commemorated by a plaque. In between discussing his upcoming trip to Uruguay and the labels on Carpaccio and Bellini he has written for the Pinacoteca di Brera museum in Milan, Signor Cipriani, who turns ninety in the spring, told a story of one of the original “Senators”, a Venetian aristocrat who after leading a rakish life worthy of his eighteenth century forebears finally met a democratic end face down in his plate after consuming an abundant portion of spaghetti al pomodoro.
“Of course, that didn’t happen in the Stanza” he added carefully, proving Betjeman right.
Signor Cipriani and his most select clientele refer to the room thus: “the room”. As he notes in his memoir Prigioniero di Una Stanza a Venezia, that’s all Harry’s Bar is, a room nine metres by four, plainly decorated, with absolutely no view. Hence the bewilderment of some disappointed visitors- what’s the point of a restaurant in Venice where you can’t see Venice? It took me a while to concede that this is what makes Harry’s so superlatively Venetian. In a city where it has been impossible to keep a secret for a thousand years, what could be more appealing than a restaurant where you can’t be seen? And what could be a more magnificent demonstration of Venetian arrogance than choosing to ignore the beauty of the city outside if you can take it for granted every day?
Signor Cipriani’s book is sadly not translated into English, but some of his best anecdotes are included in the Harry's Bar Cookbook which also contains recipes for the Venetian dishes he still tastes personally every day before allowing them out of the kitchen.
Our recipes this week are indirect homage to the magic that Signor Cipriani has conjured in the Stanza for the last seventy years, encapsulated in the etching on the glass doors at the entrance by the cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. Mornings and lunch at the Stanza are for Venetians, aperitif and inner for the international crowd as captured by Hirschfeld: Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Hutton, Peggy Guggenheim, Orson Welles, Gary Cooper, Frank Lloyd Wright, Joe di Maggio, Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway
HEMINGWAY’S “DAMN FINE SAUCE”
Papa was fond of this over the dorata he was always claiming to have fished out of the lagoon, but this vegetarian version is luxurious, earthy and decadent just as it is.
Anna writes…A classic sauce, but a good one to keep refreshed at the front of our minds because of its versatility. The addition of a leek is optionally but I liked the sweetness it added.Bosky and enveloping, the culinary equivalent of a chic alpine hut.
Sauce for 4
1 red onion
1 leek (optional)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tbsp butter
glug of olive oil
1 cup of good red wine
2 tbsp marsala (optional)
100g Porcini mushrooms (soaked in 300ml water)
2 bay leaves
3 juniper berries
Soak the porcini mushrooms in warm water, doesn’t need to be scalding, warm is fine. Leave them to soak ideally overnight. We are going to be using the liquid mainly.
Thinly dice the red onions and slice the leeks add them to a large sauce pan with a good glue of olive oil, a smidge of butter, and a pinch of salt. Let these cook slowly over a low heat for 10 minutes. Stirring occasionally. Then add the garlic and stir for another 5 minutes. Next turn up the heat slightly and add the bay leaves, juniper berries and cup of red wine and a tablespoon of marsala if you have it. When you can no longer smell the alcohol add the porcini water bit by bit. Let this simmer down over low heat again. Let this go for another 20 minutes, adding more water when needed. Now if you want you can add the carefully chopped porcini mushrooms, but if you need them for another recipe on the following day this sauce will be great with just the water. If using, stir through the sauce and let simmer for a further 5 minutes. (This sauce can be made even more indulgent with the addition of cream but that may not be for every day.)
In the past we served this over a rare roast beef but yesterday was a day for portobello mushrooms, slow-roasted in the oven. It is also a brilliant sauce to be stirred through fresh pasta with sautéed or braised leeks.
SPUDS a la CAPOTE
Truman Capote’s favourite food was baked potatoes with caviar. If you happen to have a tin of Beluga lying around so much the better, but this presentation will bring out the glamour in more easily accessible lumpfish or salmon caviar. So smart for friends with drinks, but maybe even better to eat a pile of them alone whilst wearing silk pyjamas, Peggy Guggenheim-style.
500g new potatoes, rinsed
2 spring onions/ small bunch chives
salt and black pepper
Caviar according to your delight
Boil the potatoes in salted water for approx. 15 minutes until a fork goes through the skin easily. Leave to cool (not in the fridge, it will make the starch go sticky). Grate the lemon of its zest and mix with the mascarpone in a bowl with plenty of black pepper and the finely-snipped spring onion tails or chives. Halve the potatoes and scoop a little of the flesh out with the tip of a teaspoon, then add a teaspoon of the mascarpone mix and as much caviar as you wish. Divine hot or cold.
Oh, how nostalgic that makes me feel.