“…you get a pretty good plate of food – and the Bellinis are just fine. They just cost a fuck of a lot”.

Anthony Bourdain on Harry’s Bar.

It is far too long since I have squeezed around a table at Harry’s bar in Venice.

At my last visit, a then unmarried George Clooney was at the bar and the price of a Bellini and a toasted sandwich was just this side of a modest bank loan, nowadays I guess you’ll need a second mortgage for the same midday snack.

And as each day’s menu highlights the FX rate across nine different countries, you can almost guess the financial DNA of the clientele – along with the imminent damage to your own credit card of course.

But if you want to mingle with the silent ghosts that have graced the bar with their bibulous exploits and cultural flair, then you’d be hard pressed to beat the ambience here. From Aristotle Onasis and the Aga Khan to Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Orson Welles, the bohemian spirit-world now fuses with the day’s well-healed glitterati, many of whom still beg for an evening table no matter how assuredly the bill will eventually denude their wallets. Papa Hemingway in his day boasted that he could call upon his very own table there, available day or night. Mind you he was partial to a little post-luncheon boasting as we know. The staff are a little more circumspect on this myth but I remember one long-serving waiter who was proud to recall that he was quite happy to shoo anyone from a table if Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida were in town.

For those not acquainted with Harry’s, it’s not so much a bar and restaurant, more a state of mind.

It still lodges in mine.

Like the late Anthony Bourdain, I cannot pretend that the food scores highly on the cost-to-value ratio (although on that critique, it finds itself in similar company with many tourist’s trattorias in Venice) but, whilst sitting alone, a solitary purview of the day’s clientele certainly does.

And if you happen to find yourself canal-side any time soon, say hello to George from me. He’ll doubtless remember my face. I was the one that began coughing a lot when the bill was presented.

Alternatively, if a vicarious link to some of those distant echoes is required without the associated penury, then I suggest you run down a copy of The Harry’s Bar Cookbook by Arrigo Cipriani (1993) and head straight for my all time favourite toasted sandwich – Harry’s Croque Monsieur. If you wanted an accompanying Bellini, page 16 will hit the spot.

Croque Monsieur

225g Gruyère, diced or grated

1 large egg yolk

1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp Dijon mustard

Pinch of cayenne pepper


Cream, if needed to thin the cheese

110g sliced ham

12 thin slices of white bread, crusts removed

Olive oil for frying

Put the cheese, egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and cayenne in a food processor and blitz until smooth

Season with salt

If the mixture is too thick to spread easily, thin with a little cream

Spread the cheese mixture on one side of all the bread slices

Arrange ham over the cheese on half the slices and invert remaining bread over the ham

Press the sandwiches firmly together

Film the bottom of a heavy skillet with oil and heat 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 remaining sandwiches

Finally cut the sandwiches in half and serve hot, wrapped in an elegant, grease-proof paper napkin. One of Harry’s might be culturally appropriate if you have any chums on a modern Grand Tour who are willing to snaffle some souvenir naperie when the waiters aren’t looking.

Wine thoughts

If you can’t afford a round of Bellinis at Harry’s Bar (and I’m guessing you probably can’t, unless you’re on a city-break with Jeff Bezos) you could pull it all together at home. Use a food mill or grinder and purée a few white peaches and force them through a fine sieve. If the peach purée is tart, sweeten with little sugar syrup, then refrigerate. Mix 1 part purée to 3 parts Prosecco and pour into well-chilled glasses.

If , on the other hand, you need some gravitas to accompany your Croque, then pick on one of the world’s most widely planted, but least known grape varieties – Sémillon. Originally based in Bordeaux, and used to make the world’s most famous sweet wine; Château d’Yquem, it has since traveled widely. Traditionally blended with both Chardonnay and Sauvignon in the Old World, it is increasingly seen as a useful single varietal wine in the New World. The Hunter Valley in Australia has especially warmed to it over the last 25 years. A lot in common with Sauvignon Blanc, it is an unusual white offering substantial toasty flavours that will join you and your sandwich with much culinary success. And leave your ISA’s intact.