Too many years ago, I published an article about the history of Harry’s Bar Venice, one of the most iconic landmarks in Italy. I told my story through the eyes of Ruggero Caumo, who had worked at Harry’s for more than four decades, most of them as head barman. Ruggero was a charming and lovely man whom I met one day while he was mixing my martini. I interviewed him on his day off while he was getting a haircut. We spoke mostly in Italian, at his request. As he felt more comfortable, we switched to English. He had not yet retired from Harry’s and he was in an expansive mood. I was delighted. After the original article was published, Ruggero wrote me saying that many tourists had visited Harry’s Bar all summer long with clipped-out copies of the article asking him to autograph it. Naturally, he obliged. I hope you enjoy his story:
“This is a place where everybody in the world stops once in his life,” says Ruggero Caumo, head barman of Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy — the world’s most famous watering hole.
Ruggero ought to know. He has been tending bar there since 1946.
“I don’t need to go away to see the world,” he says. “The world passes through here.”
No one can argue with him. No trip to Venice is complete without a visit to Harry’s Bar, the always-crowded-to-capacity original from which all others are pale imitations.
From his vantage point, behind the tiny, intimate bar, Ruggero has spent the last several decades watching the human parade pass through. And what a parade.
He has mixed thousands of drinks for Harry’s legendary clientele – writers, film stars, tycoons, royalty, and assorted bon vivants—a list headed by novelist Ernest Hemingway, the man who put Harry’s Bar on the map.
Even Ruggero is a celebrity of sorts. He has been known for making the driest martini on the continent. This talent alone has attracted much of high society to Harry’s Bar.
“Prince Philip was a regular before he married Queen Elizabeth,” Ruggero recalls. “There was Somerset Maugham, A.J. Cronin, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Truman Capote, Noel Coward, the Windsors. And Errol Flynn,” he adds, as if anyone could ever forget. “He liked his drinks very strong.”
Toscanini, Cole Porter, the kings of Greece and Spain.
“The Aga Khan came in every day when he was in town, “Ruggero says. “He would be pushed over here in his wheelchair from the Hotel Bauer-Grunwald to have his regular serving of caviar.”
Ruggero speaks with special fondness of filmmaker Orson Welles. “He is molto simpatico. I remember the morning Mr. Welles sent a driver over from where he was shooting a film in Yugoslavia. At 10 a.m., the driver picked up 24 sandwiches and two bottles of champagne to take back across the border for Mr. Welles’ lunch.”
Ruggero is a man out of yesterday – caught in a glamorous time warp in a place that exists mostly in his memories.
His tender reminiscences make it clear that Harry’s Bar has changed. It has not gone downhill – its standards of excellent food, strong drink and impeccable service have not wavered – Harry’s has simply gone modern.
The rich and famous still drop in. The celebrity-to-tourist ratio, however, has gone lopsided over the years to lean heavily in favor of the tourists. The celebrity at the moment is the bar itself.
Gone is Harry’s founder and patriarch, Giuseppe Cipriani, who died in 1980. Giuseppe’s son Arrigo (Italian for Harry), educated as an attorney, took over running the place after Giuseppe passed away. Now there are computers that plan the menu, check the inventories and balance the books. Now there is an electronic cash register beneath track lighting that highlight the bar’s high-speed blenders. [And of course now a sophisticated presence on the Web.]
Meanwhile, Ruggero Caumo is left as the single human reminder of the way things were in the good old days.
In his nearly flawless, slightly accented English, Ruggero delights in telling the story of how an American-style oasis surfaced in Venice. He speaks with affection and admiration for Giuseppe Cipriani, who hired him and taught him his trade.
“In the late 1920s, Giuseppe was the head barman of the Europa Hotel here in Venice,” Ruggero says. “An American named Harry Pickering was a regular customer. Pickering was dependent on a rich aunt for his support. One day in 1930, he left the hotel without paying his bill. Giuseppe paid it for him. Two years went by before Harry came again – this time with the money and an extra $5,000. Harry said to Giuseppe, ‘I want to make a bar with you, and I want you to run it.’ And that is how they formed their partnership.”
Giuseppe opened the little bar in a remodeled rope shop at the end of Calle Vallaresso, tucked away near the Grand Canal. He named it after his new partner.
However, Harry’s Bar was not born busy. “Giuseppe spent too much money on advertising that did not attract customers,” Ruggero explains. And co-owner Harry became is own best customer. He drank most of the profits. After a few years, Pickering sold out his interest.
War Comes to Venice
Giuseppe was barely keeping the doors open when World War II broke out. Afraid that Hitler’s soldiers would confiscate all he’d worked for, he shrewdly buried thousands of gallons of liquor on the tiny island of Torcello out in the Venetian lagoon.
As he feared, the Nazi’s requisitioned Harry’s Bar for an officer’s club in 1941 and 1942. Giuseppe spent those years patiently sailing the Venetian lagoon and making plans to turn the rundown “little fish place” he already had bought on Torcello into a six-room inn and restaurant. [Forty years later, the remote and serene Locanda Cipriani still operates.]
After Venice was liberated, Giuseppe triumphantly dug up his liquor cache, and Harry’s Bar was once again open for business.
“I remember pouring from those bottles,” recalls Ruggero. “None of them had any labels on them.”
This did not bother the thirsty American soldiers who occupied the city, eager to celebrate victory. Harry’s Bar was the only place in town with any booze to sell.
“None of the hotels had any liquor,” Ruggero says with a smile. “Not the Europa, not the Gritti, not the Danieli, none of them. Just Harry’s.” He laughs at the memory.
Giuseppe went into the black, paid his debts, and Harry’s Bar hit its stride.
It has been on a roll ever since.
In 1946, Giuseppe hired 22-year-old Ruggero to help run the Locanda on Torcello. The two men were related by marriage. The son of a hotelkeeper, Ruggero had just graduated from hotel school in the Italian Alps.
Ruggero was quickly bored with the island’s isolation; so Giuseppe brought him over to keep the books at Harry’s Bar. On busy days – most days – Ruggero would help mix cocktails, work that came naturally to him.
“Giuseppe told me, ‘If you like bartending, I’ll buy you a white jacket and black trousers, and you can start tomorrow.”
Ruggero has been wearing a version of that outfit ever since.
Ruggero Wins a Promotion
In 1948, Giuseppe still was working as proprietor, host and his own head barman. He, too, wore a white jacket. Ruggero’s big break came at the expense of a senior bartender.
“We were very busy one day. The other bartender was shaking a brandy Alexander – made with fresh coconut juice, crème de cacao and brandy,” Ruggero explains automatically, “when his hand slipped and the drink splashed everywhere. Giuseppe was so mad at this carelessness that he banished the man from the bar forever and sent him to wait on tables.”
At the same time, Giuseppe realized he could not do everything himself. He hung up his own white jacket forever and named Ruggero head barman.
Ruggero remembers this as the same year Harry’s popular specialty drink of peach juice ad sparkling champagne finally was christened the Bellini. “We named them Bellinis in the summer of ’48 because the works of the Italian painter Bellini were on display at the Ducal Palace,” he says.
Shortly after, Giuseppe – who didn’t need a computer, noticed thousands of gallons of gin taking up too much storage space. He asked Ruggero to create a drink that would use up the excess liquor. The head barman quickly obliged and the legendary “Ruggero” was born.
Ruggero proudly runs down the ingredients. “Peach juice, orange juice, a little lemon juice and two shots of gin. Mix well in a shaker and pour into a large glass with three cubes of crushed ice.” The bar can’t make them fast enough.
Of all the bars and restaurants in Venice, one of the world’s most popular tourist draws, why did Harry’s Bar become and remain the most popular?
“Harry’s Bar always improved,” Ruggero explains. “Giuseppe invented it, promoted it and made it famous. He was always thinking. He gave an extra-strong drink, a good portion of fresh food. He knew in detail everyone’s job. He insisted the waiters he hired had to learn the operation from the ground up. Everything from washing and cleaning the wood panels to going to the market for produce. But, most of all, he was friendly. To everybody.
Hemingway and Harry’s Bar Venice
Another key reason for Harry’s popularity is the never-ending attraction of its patron saint, Ernest Hemingway. He became one of Giuseppe’s closest friends. Ruggero knew him well.
“He was a beautiful man,” says Ruggero. “He came in every day. He was one of our best customers.”
Hemingway wrote most of “Across the River and into the Trees” while staying at the Locanda on Torcello, though some would call that a dubious distinction for the inn. However, Giuseppe and Harry’s Bar were characters in the novel.
“Hemingway would come in at 11 o’clock when we opened, sit at the middle of the bar and talk with Giuseppe about politics. Often, nobody even realized he was there.”
Ruggero remembers customers walking into Harry’s Bar and spotting Hemingway seated at the bar. Some were dumbstruck. Others had come looking for him. Those who didn’t already have one of his book with them would slip out and return with a copy.
“He was always gracious about autographing his books,” Ruggero says. “First he’d look at his watch. Then he’d write down the exact time, to the second, then the date and then his best wishes. People were always delighted.”
Everybody tried to buy him drinks, especially American soldiers. “You see, Hemingway could support many drinks without harm because he was a big, strong man.”
In summer, the writer drank Bellinis. In winter, he switched to Ruggero’s martinis, which he called Montgomerys.
“He liked his martinis 15 parts gin to 1 part vermouth,” Ruggero explains. “He called them Montgomerys after British Field Marshall Montgomery who, Hemingway claimed, always led his men into battle with a strength of 15 to 1.
People still peek in the door and ask which bar stool Hemingway used to occupy. “I point to that middle one,,” Ruggero says. “Some ask if they can sit on it. I always say yes – if it is not occupied, of course. They sit timidly for a second. And then they go. Sometimes they don’t even order anything.
“There used to be a photograph of Hemingway with Giuseppe that hung over there by the door. One day it vanished. Someone must have stolen it for a souvenir,” he says wistfully.
Another fond reminder of yesterday, gone forever.
“I’ve had everything I’ve needed right here,” he says with no regrets.
Ruggero Caumo knows he belongs to another era. He is content to stay in that era, knowing Harry’s must change to survive.
Even if Venice sinks – something the city has been threatening to do for years – Harry’s Bar probably will manage to bob to the surface and float. It is that durable.
[For another Italian travel article, see my post on the Arezzo Antique/Flee Market.]