STILL 'LA DOLCE VITA' AT HARRY'S IN ROME
By Chris Barnett
June 25, 2009 -- My first visit to Harry's Bar in Rome is forever implanted in my brain. A silver-haired Anthony Hopkins lookalike in a proper white barman's coat was standing behind a small, U-shaped bar and slowly, serenely stirring a gin martini, unfazed by the after-work throng shouting drink orders at him. He was the picture-perfect bartender, neither intrusive nor aloof, but friendly, plying his trade at his own speed.
Two decades later, the curved bar remains quite hospitable, but it's longer, paneled in sculpted warm woods and it has a polished brass rail for leaning. And despite the crowds, the head barman, Pasqueli Diposto, carries on the tradition of meticulous mixology in his own private oasis of calmness and civility.
Harry's in Rome (circa 1959) is no kin to Giuseppe Cipriani's original Harry's Bar in Venice (circa 1931) or to Harry's New York Bar in Paris (circa 1911). It gained instant notoriety for its location on the Via Veneto, the fashionable boulevard featured in filmmaker Federico Fellini's 1960 tour de force, La Dolce Vita. Even now, many visitors to the Eternal City think Harry's Bar "starred" in the landmark film depicting Rome's decadence in the late 1950s.
Fellini's visually seductive movie was filmed in black and white, but Harry's is a palatte of lush colors. Walk into its grand entrance, go left through a marble arch into the bar and you'll find a dozen tables with chairs upholstered in burgundy, gray, black, brown and cream. A tapestry covers the high ceiling. One restrained chandelier and small sconces provide the lighting.
I don't recall a platoon of servers my first time through, but they are personable and stylish (clad in all black) without being either brusque or fawning. Romans converse at Mach II and you'll hear other languages filling the air, too. But the decibel level doesn't drown out the singer and piano player, who performs nightly until 2 a.m.
As I remember, Harry's was a stand-up bar with no stools like many European saloons. The theory being that you can move around easier, meet and talk with friends, colleagues and total strangers instead of being anchored. Now, Harry's has stools, but traditions die hard and people still stand.
"Women can stand or sit at the bar by themselves or as a couple and it's a safe place," says Diposto who sports a black jacket and shirt and a snappy regimental tie. I prefer the bar as front row center in this libational theatre for watching traditional Italian cocktails being handcrafted at Diposto's pace.
The signature drink is the Bellini, created in the first Harry's Bar in Venice. A delicious fusion of fresh peach juice and Champagne, it's served straight up. A version that's novel to me is called the Puccini. It's Champagne mixed with fresh tangerine juice.
The Negroni (red vermouth, gin and Campari) is another favorite among Harry's local and international clientele. Italians of a certain vintage love their "digestives" and Fernet-Branca has been the after-meal, stomach-settling liqueur of choice for generations. It takes a strong belly to even sip this bitter herbal brew, but Diposto also carries a mint-flavored alternative called Branca Menta. It's served straight or with Coca-Cola.
Old-style Italian liqueurs like Strega and Galliano usually collect dust on the shelves in American bars. Here they're actively mixed in cocktails popular 30 years ago, but still known and popular around the world. For instance: a Golden Cadillac is a mixture of Galliano, crème de cocoa and fresh cream.
Harry's is a fascinating venue for business travelers--many frequent the nearby Westin Excelsior or Marriott Grand Hotel Flora--who want to get know their Italian prospects or entertain clients in style. Says Diposto: "Our guests are 50 percent Italian, mostly businesspeople, bankers, government officials and 50 percent internationals including showpeople, lawyers and diplomats, so we make cocktails to try and please everyone's taste."
Harry's Bar has a short, but diverse, menu of cocktails with alluring names like Cardinale, Garibaldi, and the Bronx. Also on the list: old standbys like the Americano, Gin Fizz, and the original Dry Gin Martini. Recently, Diposto had a request for three Bloody Caesars, practically the national drink of Canada. It substitutes real clam juice--but mostly spicy Clamato juice--for tomato juice. Outside of Canada, that call would stymie younger, less worldy bartenders.
These days, Harry's also pours Italian wines by the glass and carries a lineup of foreign bottled beers. To sate the appetite of the peckish, the bar offers a half-dozen sizeable sandwiches ranging from smoked salmon to a double Harry's cheeseburger.
Prices may seem wickedly stratospheric--at current exchange rates, a beer goes for $14 and cocktails reach $25--but tipping remains a rarity in Italy. And at least the dollar is in better shape this summer, trading for around $1.40 to the euro compared to last year's almost-inconceivable $1.60.
ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Creators Syndicate.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.