Venice, Christmas Eve You leave the grand space of San Marco’s campo, with its four horses and St. Mark’s body, clipped as goods of war, now bringing credentialization to the duomo. Walk along the water’s edge, and you’ll feel this stolen grandeur fade. Four stairs down step the platform closer to the water, where no doubt aqua alta splashes regularly when storms and high waters brew.
Keep walking, another block or two.To your left across the water is the Custom’s House, and a graceful church. In the fall, gondolas are reefed up side by side, and boards are put on top of each gondola, to allow you to walk across the water. A ritual of thanks for bringing the city through a plague.
To your right, you will feel Harry’s before you see it. Two lighted windows in the otherwise dark waterside passage. Frosted, with art deco style fonts, sans serif, saying simply: Harry’s Bar. Like the font, without flourish, you have found it.
“I think this is Harry’s,” Suzanne said.
We were not sure we were at the front door. Double doors, glass panels repeating “Harry’s Bar,” brass handles highly polished, understatedly welcomes you.
I tentatively pull open the door, half expecting to be in the kitchen by accident, my “Scusi” is at the ready. Instead, I enter the Algonquin bar on the Grand Canal. Small round white tableclothed tables along the windows, a few folks sitting sipping Bellini’s, they scan us as we come into the room. I expect to see Dorothy Parker at one of the tables, holding forth.
“Buona sera.” The tuxedoed receptionist greets us, list in hand, standing behind an aged wooden restaurant pulpit.
“Buona sera e buon Natale! Ho un reservatione alle otto, le cognome e Hackett o Fifield, credo.”
“Si, Signora Hackett. Buonvenuto al Harry’s. ” And he gestures to my right.
Magically a man has appeared to my right, placing his body between me and the scanning eyes. I did not feel him arrive, he is just here, in his white short coat, perfectly starched and pressed, right by my side. He smiles his welcome, and gestures. He will lead us to our table—in part so we will not get lost. In part, because there are rituals to be done along the way and he will be our guide.
The space itself is quite small, and cozy. Yet the space is perfectly managed for privacy. Our guide leads us to the coatroom, visually buffering for me the whole way. The “coatroom” has the footprint of an American dining room table, no bigger than that, just tucked in the corner of the stairwell. No doors, just two walls. A short Italian woman emerges from under the coats, dressed all in black, and takes our coats. This is the second magic appearance of staff, and I will quickly learn that all of Harry’s personnel are masters of appearing and disappearing without leaving traces. Like a good wedding photographer who can mix among guests without being felt, so as to capture great candids, these people are experts in tucking in their energy and serving up privacy, in an incredibly compact space.
In the coatroom space, there are two sets of stairs. Our stairs are to our left, waxed, polished warm oak, a graceful curve and banister. The other stairs go straight ahead, straight up, no nonsense, with metal trim to keep the worn no skid covers on. These are for the staff — who must be predominantly right-footed, because the first stair has a deeply worn place cupped into the wood on the right, and the second stair has one on the left. Many stories have gone up and down those stairs.
Our guide gestures to our left and leads us up our less worn stairs, where the next tuxedoed maître d’ takes over, welcomes us again, and leads us to our table, through one room into what I will come to understand is the preferred dining room. There is a rhythm about this process. It reminds me of synchronized swimming, only they are carrying us along with their routine, making sure each stroke is well timed. It is graceful and fluid. Very pleasant.
We are seated at our round table. The Caprisi’s have strong feelings that tables should be round, and I totally agree with them. It helps to move conversation and remove sharp edges, of all kinds.
Settling in and freaking out
The front dining room is small, with about 12 tables in it. Four bay windows open onto the Grand Canal, and two standard windows open onto the side street. Like the outside, the inside is understated and well done. The windows on this floor are not frosted. No need since we are one story up, and privacy is insured. We can see the lights from the Custom House and church sparkle in the dark water. It is just past the full moon, so there is a soft light in the night, also.
Six white coated waiters and one black tuxedoed waiter serve our dining room of 12 tables. They pass each other wordlessly between the tables in a constant flow, again reminding me of synchronized swimming. In the course of our dinner, each one of the seven men will come to our table. They all speak perfect English and prefer to use it for us, the way that I am proud to try my Itanglish. But I give in, and receive their gift of language, and do not use my Itanglish –expect now and then.
We begin, of course, with Bellini’s — and aqua frizzante.
The Bellini’s are amazing. They take a surprising amount of time to appear, and are worth the wait. No doubt the white apricots are pureed moments before the drink arrives on the table. Exquisite! With the first sip, I plot how to acquire white apricots in Citta della Pieve. The Bellini’s are served in a thin cylindrical glass. Not too sweet. Not too thick. Not too cold. Perfect. I am already very glad I came.
The maître d’ delivers the menus. They are the color of Tiffany’s. And similarly priced.
“The lentil soup is 30€ –my God, that is $45 US dollars for a bowl of soup! The meat courses are 79 € and contorne (vegetables) are high 20’s! Pasta is in the 40’s. Bellini’s start at 15 and go to 17. The best value on the menu is the house wine at 8 Euros for a quarter liter. Good God.” We are reading the menu out loud.
The maître d’ is right on top of his job. He arrives instantly by my side, body blocking us from the rest of the room, hands folded in fig leaf style. Deep quiet soothing voice. “Might I suggest the Christmas Eve menu? It is a very good choice.”
“That is con tua consiglia (with your recommendation)?” I ask .
“Yes, most certainly. A fine fish menu.”
It is also the best value for the Euro on the menu, I note silently. The fixed price Christmas Eve menu is 120 € –per person. I cannot help myself from converting into US dollars: $180 and rising. Pretty stunning. But this delicious-reading five course meal values out the same as ordering only a second course and vegetables. He is right. A good choice, both in value and taste.
The Christmas Eve menu is:
• Antipasto: Tuna tartar, artichoke hearts, and baby shrimp with a light horseradish sauce
• Primo: Spinach-based ravioli stuffed with white fish and a very light cheese. Sauce is roe and a white bean, just very lightly dotting the ravioli
• Secondo: Sea bass on asparagus tips, topped with Hollandaise sauce, which is grilled (a slight bit of cheese is added to the Hollandaise so that it can be grilled and a light crust forms, browning it and adding a wonderful texture).
• Dessert: Panettone, traditional Christmas bread.
“Thank you, grazie. I appreciate your recommendation.”
This interchange, as planned, has managed to stop the just-a-bit-too-loud reading of the numbers on the menu. The maître d’ leaves us with an almost imperceptible nod and slight bow. I shoot him a smile. He will be back.
“Mamma mia regazzi, do Elizabeth and Matthew know what they are giving us?”
“Yes, I hope so. It is indeed a very generous gift, isn’t it? I think they know what they have done. Elizabeth said this was a place not to be missed and they wanted me to experience it. Elizabeth has been here, so she knows Harry’s, and I do hope they know how much they are giving us.” I had read the website, but it had still not prepared me for the sticker shock.
We settle into reading the menu again, just because it really is amazing in the variety and presentation of fish. Christmas Eve dinner is always fish in Italy -a tradition inherited from Italy’s Catholic roots.
“Are you ready to order?” One of the six white coats has arrived. Each one is more handsome than the next. Beautiful Italian men. This one looks like a tall Rupert Everett, only more gorgeous and definitely straight.
Suzanne has a question. “Does the panettone come with raisins?” He will ask. He disappears and returns.
“No, not tonight, Madame. Sorry.”
“That’s alright, I was just wondering. And will you serve it with whipped cream?”
“No, sorry, it is served plain.”
We order two Christmas Eve menus, and the white coats leave us to our Bellini’s.
Suzanne is in shock. She has a deer-in-the-headlights look about her.
Suzanne pulls out her cell phone and starts text messaging her sons in Seattle: “At Harry’s Bar. Bowl of soup 30 Euros. Just ordered fixed prix at 120 Euro. Gift from Jill’s son and daughter in law. Wish you were here.” She reads it – out loud to me. Then sends another to her other son. This takes a while, so I begin observing.
Christmas Eve diners
A British couple to my right, middle of that wall. The man was a double for Daddy JEF in his early 50’s. Really strikingly the same. Harris tweed jacket, nice cufflinks, same strong jaw line, slightly receding hair, silver glasses, nice smile. He had curly hair, slightly darker than Jim Fifield’s, otherwise a doppelganger. It was comforting to see a reminder of Jim. They spoke quietly and were facing away from me, so I could not catch their story.
This British couple triggered my telling Suzanne a Matthew story. I was going to meet some British friends of Matthew’s at Princeton for the first time. I asked what the woman looked like, and Matthew said she was a fine looking British woman. I asked what that meant, and Matt said, “You know how Dustin Hoffmann looks in Tootsie? That’s what a fine British woman looks like.” I thought that was a very funny observation, and have come to understand it as pretty accurate. This British woman, however, was slim and blonde. She was aging nicely. Maybe she was Swiss.
In the far right corner of the room, a retired American couple, short, grey, square faces and bodies. Very attentive to each other. She had once been a beauty, you could tell from the way she carried herself and the way he still looked at her. He clearly saw her as beautiful. The husband talked at length to the maître d’, telling him that he had been in the restaurant business in the United States. So Harry’s for this couple was a crowning experience that they had always wanted to have. Their Christmas present.
Directly across from me, a fully head shaved man around my age sitting between his elderly mother and his young daughter—very strong family resemblances. He had his elbows on the table a lot, and was wringing his hands intermittently—I doubt he was aware of this. We would catch each others’ eyes at times, because we were directly in each others’ line of sight. At the moments we looked at each other, he seemed to be saying “Get me out of this.” And yet, I know they will all remember that evening and be glad of it, when the grandmother is no longer around. Important memories, however hand wringing they were, were being made.
An American family of four came into the dining room and sat just to my right, at the near corner table. Father, mother, college-aged daughter and mid-twenties son. When they received their menus the two children began to read the prices out loud. I watched the maître d’ go into high alert.
The son said, “Dad, this is going to be a 600 Euro dinner for us—that’s almost a thousand dollars.”
“We deserve it, son. It is okay.”
The mother added, “Thank God for counseling or we might not all be here together.”
“It would have been very sad for me not to be with you all at Christmas,” the father added quietly.
“May I suggest the Christmas Eve menu?” The maître d’ had arrived. Perfect timing.
I understood that this family had been through a lot the past year. Later—when I shared our whipped cream with them that the chef made especially for Suzanne’s offhand comment about panettone — I would learn that the daughter was studying in Barcelona for the year, and they all came over to be with her. Families often go through crisis when the first, or the last, child leaves home. This was also the father’s first trip to Europe.
For this family, Harry’s was the ritual, the acknowledgement, the gift that they were giving themselves that they were pulling through together as a family, that they would continue, together.
Our meal arrived in well timed waves. The house white wine was excellent: light, dry and a perfect complement to the meal. A pretty small pitcher, wavy. With Murano here, glass is appreciated.
The tuna tartar was amazing. Soft sushi grade tuna finely minced with fresh herbs. I love good raw tuna and did not think anything could make it taste better, but Harry’s found a way. The two artichoke hearts looked like tender small dark green tulips, perfectly soft and delicious. And the baby shrimp—yummy. The sauce was mayonnaise based, which sounds awful but it was excellent. I think it had a touch of horseradish—Suzanne disagreed. Light, creamy, not overwhelming.
The ravioli, a light green, with red roe dotting it, and some white bean sauce here and there. The sauce dressed the ravioli like little edible Christmas balls, rather than a swamp of flavor. It was fun to be able to choose the progression of tastes by how I loaded my fork.
And the sea bass: spectacolo. Suzanne held an Italian conversation with the waiter to ask about the browned crust—that is how we discovered the cheese in the Hollandaise sauce.
Somewhere between the ravioli and the sea bass, a white coat arrived to tell us that “The panettone will be having raisins tonight.” The traditional Christmas bread was pregnant with raisins afterall! And it arrived with a surprise bowl of whipped cream, in response to Suzanne’s offhanded inquiry. That is how we met the family next to me.
They were eying our whipped cream, about to ask for some, thinking they had been overlooked. I offered them our bowl, and explained it was made specially, that they were not slighted.
I excused myself to go to the ladies room, and when I came back, the maître d’ had inquired of Suzanne if I were indeed Ms. Hackett. He inquired if the gentleman who left his credit card for this gift was my father, and was most impressed to find out the gift was from my son and daughter in law. Italians highly value mothers and motherhood, and to have a son and his wife give the gift of Harry’s at Christmas to his mother—it MOST impressed the staff. Just touched their hearts. Really.
On my trip to the ladies room, I had spotted a Harry’s Cookbook, and a book about the history of Harry’s. I asked the maître d’ to show them to me. Very interesting.
I hailed the maître d’ and requested in my best Italian if he would mind asking the chef if he was willing to dedicate these books for me. With a real bow this time, from the waist (afterall, it was now established that I am a mother with a generous son and daughter-in-law!) , the tuxedoed maître d’ briskly turned and left the room.
The books reappeared, all signed and dedicated—one dedicated for Elizabeth and one for Matthew. Since they could not be Harry’s with me, I wanted them to have a piece of this experience.
The chef was not at all annoyed to sign–he was, instead, thoroughly delighted to be asked. As we left the upstairs, the entire kitchen staff lined up like a receiving line, to say goodbye to me — a wall of white aprons and beautiful Italian smiles! The chef was in the kitchen which was just a tiny bit larger than the coat room nook—but he waived enthusiastically over the heads of his staff. They do not do that for everyone. It was a pretty amazing moment.
Down the wooden stairs, the lady emerged again from under the coats. The front room now was packed with people, and the staring and scanning was stronger, without a white coat to barrier us. People watched everyone coming or going, in part because people do that. In part, because the people at Harry’s are a fascinating selection.
I thought about Bill Cosby and how he lived so close to me in Lancaster MA (and raised and showed wire hair fox terriers). But very few people ever saw him coming or going. When I asked around about it, I learned there were private airports just for celebrities. Many flew into Hanscome Airfield in Concord. Just to maintain privacy.
I once saw a rock star jogging along the canal by the bridges on Cape Cod—she had a wall of body guards surrounding her, jogging at her pace: three across, three deep, three at the back. You could catch only a glimpse of her through these large bodies.
The rock star and Bill Cosby would like Harry’s. They would be served exquisite privacy. And amazing food.
Stories are told only about a very few visitors—some are in the books I bought. Hemingway was known to take four bottles of wine with him after dinner, to drink and write all evening. By morning the four bottles would be outside of his hotel room door, and presumably some text would have been birthed from it all. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip reportedly visited Harry’s. I can see that, easily.
While there was no Dorothy Parker in the downstairs room (I checked again on the way out ;o), I was reminded of her quote: “I do not know much about being a millionaire. But I bet I’d be darling at it.”
As I left Harry’s I knew through and through that I would be darling at it. I had just been treated like one for the evening and loved every moment of it. It was a spectacular evening in my book. I loved being treated like I was a little bit famous—even if I am only famous to my son and daughter in law. And I loved how the whole kitchen staff lined up to see this mother that was treated to dinner by her son and daughter in law.