admin On ottobre - 18 - 2014

acipby Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Arrigo Cipriani, born in 1932, often jokes about being the only person named after a bar: had it not been for the fascist regime – which banned foreign names – he would be called Harry. So at the time Arrigo seemed the perfect Italian fit.
Cipriani not only is a man of wisdom, intellect and a strong supporter of free thought, but at 82 he has the energy, enthusiasm and joie de vivre of a teenager. That is how he enhanced the establishment his father, Giuseppe, founded at the beginning of the 20th century, which is as much a part of the Venice myth as the canals, gondolas and the Rialto Bridge.

Mr Cipriani in this Exclusive Interview retraces the history of Harry’s Bar and the Cipriani hallmark:

Harry’s Bar has a very fascinating history connected to how your father conceived it…

My father belonged to a very poor family, they emigrated to Germany in the early 1900s, when my grandfather was working in construction. Then the entire family returned to Italy just before World War One, and it was then that my father started to work at fifteen years old in a pastry shop. In a couple of years he became a pastry chef, and then he wanted to be a waiter because he knew German and Italian, and he picked up English very quickly. By the time of the late 20s he was a bartender in Venice, during the summer at Hotel Europa and in the winter he would work in San Remo or any place in Europe where the winter was mild. In 1928 when he was working at Europa Hotel he had three customers who were the best customers: a noble aunt, with her gigolo and her nephew. One day they quarrelled, so the aunt left with the gigolo leaving the nephew behind, Harry Pickering, completely penniless. My father realised it so he asked Mr Pickering if he needed anything and the young man answered he needed money to pay the bill and return to the States. My father lent him something like 10.000 Lira, which was a lot of money at the time. And he didn’t have a clue of who this man was. That’s the kind of man my father was. Two years later Mr Pickering returned to Venice with the money he borrowed and some more to allow my father to open a bar. His name was Harry. My mother found an old warehouse where they would keep ropes for the navy and where the “calle” [Venetian narrow street] had no bridge to connect it to San Marco Square, it was at a dead-end. That was what my father wanted: a place where customers would come because they had a motivation to come, not because they were just passing by. And then he created a bar, like a hotel bar, where the customers from different hotels would come over to meet. That’s what actually happened. Amazingly enough it opened in the middle of the American crisis. In the 30s Venice had all the European aristocracy that would meet. One day they had even four kings having lunch together – at different tables [laughs] – at Harry’s Bar. That’s how it started and became very well known.

How did Harry’s Bar cope through the war?

During the war we had a very difficult time. They closed the bar because the fascists said it was a place where antifascists or Jewish would meet, so it was shut down from 1943 to 1945 and became a restaurant for troops. My father was out, but he came back in 1945, after the allied forces came and freed Italy.

The cream of the crop has come to Harry’s Bar, and still does today, what is the secret of its success?

I’m old enough to have lived without freedom and very few people remember that. It happened to me on the 25th of April 1945 when I saw the New Zealand forces coming towards us by boat and I had an explosion of freedom inside me. I thought it would have been the target of my life. Hence, the secret of the success of Harry’s Bar is the lack of imposition. We don’t impose furniture – it’s very simple but comfortable – everything is studied, the height of the chairs, the height of the tables, the light, the acoustics. I call it the complication of simplicity. Simplicity I believe is luxury. But if it doesn’t have all the details that build it up it’s nothing. Everything is chosen with attentiveness, the cutlery, the glasses, and the recipes of our food, which brings back to the traditional flavour of Italian cuisine.

So luxury is simplicity in your opinion?

What I believe is that a real luxury object has a soul. I drive a luxurious car because my car does exactly what I want it to do. It’s an extension of the persona. I don’t believe that it’s a soul that comes from up above, but it’s the soul that comes from within ourselves.


This soul you managed to expand from Harry’s Bar to the Cipriani brand…

Yes the food brand, since the Hotel Cipriani is not part of it anymore – people often get mistaken – my father raised the Cipriani Hotel then he sold it in 1970. People still get confused today, in fact when I opened my restaurant in London the people who bought the Hotel registered the name in Europe and they sued me for using my own name, and I was forced to pay 15 million pounds. I still don’t understand what damage I did using my name [Laughs].

Amongst all the people who came to Harry’s Bar in the course of your life, who struck you the most?

Nobody really. If anyone surprised me that would mean they were the wrong customers. We had the most wonderful artists, poets, literates coming through here and all I can recollect about them is that they were very simple people who enjoyed themselves here. They felt free. We had Eugenio Montale, Orson Wells, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Fonda, Georges Braque, Woody Allen…

During the Venice Film Festival this year Al Pacino was said to have come here?

Al Pacino booked a table and he didn’t come over. He booked a table the next day and I didn’t give it to him. It was overbooked. [Laughs] Many people come to Venice and they always come back to Harry’s Bar, which is important.

What is your relationship with your city?

As a Venetian citizen I’m very critical. Every city in the world is made of stones and people: if you take the stones away there are people but it’s not a city, if you take the people away you have the stones without a city. About 50 years ago we used to be 150.000, today only 40.000 are left, which for a place like Venice is an enormous number because we live on the street. We don’t have motorcars, we walk around and meet with everyone and chat. One of our former mayors, Massimo Cacciari, at one point said that those who were over 75 could travel for free on a motorboat, and 32.000 appeared to demand a free pass. That gives you an idea of the average age in Venice. It’s a town made of very few people and they are all old.

Another element I’m critical about is the way the water is being dealt with. From being a source of life and friend which cleansed the city – there is no sewage system in Venice – it’s been vilified into an enemy. This happened in 1966 when there was a terrible event which flooded Italy, mostly in Florence, and Venice had a particular high tide [“acqua alta”] – which doesn’t damage buildings, since they are already standing on water….twenty inches more or twenty inches less don’t make a difference. But in 1966 the high tide lasted 15 hours instead of half an hour and the damages were made by the motorboats which were running at full speed in the calli, which broke the windows of all the shops, and the tanks used for heating of the city (made of heavy oil) broke down. This situation alerted the politicians who decided to build a huge project which later was called Mose. And it hasn’t been working yet. If you add up the damages made by the high tide in Venice, including 1966 to now, you don’t go beyond 30 millions of euros. But the politicians spent 6.000 millions for the Mose and it’s not finished yet. And once it will be ready it will be awful for Venice because they will decide how to control the tides which is wrong. Besides San Marco Square is 82 centimetres on the sea level and this thing will close only at 110, therefore the Square will be flooded anyway. On top of that this initiative labelled water as an enemy.


As a Professor at Ca’Foscari, do you think that all these elements add up in a negative way in the eyes of younger generations who leave Venice?

We have 25.000 students in Venice. We have two universities IUAV and Ca’Foscari, but the main issue for students is they haven’t got a place to stay that they can actually call home. They share apartments and this doesn’t help to integrate and become a citizen. I see amongst my 50 pupils, that perhaps just one comes from Venice and all the others commute from outer towns. I think the only solution would be to have more firms to produce jobs. They allowed all the big ones to go away, such as the National Insurance Company. Venice should encourage new firms to come and produce jobs through tax deductions. They do this in Manhattan, in England, but they never thought of that in Venice. Only through jobs you bring back citizens.

What do you try to pass on to your pupils?

The world today is trying to transform people into robots. In Italy we manage to import the worst from every foreign country, instead of the best, and we think it’s fantastic. I loath ideologists of any kind – religious, political – because they have a tendency to mould people into flocks, so that they may control them. So what I teach my pupils is to be independent with their thoughts, and be the black sheep.

Considering Harry’s Bar managed to survive and thrive through a crisis, now that we’re living a very dramatic crisis, what would you recommend to young people?

To never give up. Fight.

How many firms do you have all over the world today?

21 restaurants so far. We are opening new ones in Madrid, in Mexico City, we have them all over…Ibiza, Hong Kong, London of course, several in Manhattan…

Besides being such an established entrepreneur, you’re also very good at karate…

I used to. I studied it for 25 years. I started when I was about 30 years old and I wasn’t feeling well and had to take 7 pills a day. I said to myself “it’s too early to take 7 pills a day,” so I started to do it by chance, because one of my customers was a very good teacher and said he would give me lessons. It was very good for me. There is no mystical philosophy that engaged me. Karate – like most of the martial arts – is all about movements, which have to be done properly. If I teach you one of these moves, once you get the hang of it, you’ll realise it was within you the entire time. The movements are so perfect that you develop a wonderful knowledge of the inside of your body.

Above all you’re a family man…

I have three children, seven grandchildren. Right now four of my grandchildren are working for the Cipriani brand in Venice, Los Angeles, New York, Miami. It’s the fourth generation of Cipriani’s. Now I’ve also become a great-grandfather so there’s a fifth one too.

Is there anything you still haven’t done you’d wish to do?

So many things. I gave up drinking a year ago because I drive a motorcar very fast, I have one of the fastest in Europe. Today I’ve driven 250 kilometres an hour for instance. I test the car on the racing tracks.

Do you take your grandchildren for a ride?

Sometimes. [Laughs] My son, Giuseppe, races; he recommended that I’d get all my reflexes back without drinking. I always wanted to be a racing driver but my path brought me elsewhere.

So what is Arrigo Cipriani’s favourite dish?

So many things, liver and onions, risotto, pasta. I have a factory of pasta, my egg pasta is something really special.

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