As stone fruits come into the peak of their season, I'm obsessing over Bellinis. For the uninitiated, that would be the Venetian aperitivo of Prosecco with white peach juice. The original was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani at Harry's Bar in Venice (not the one south of Santa Monica but the original watery city) sometime before the second world war, but it wasn't named "the Bellini" until 1948.
Harry's was — and still is — famous as a watering hole for the rich and celebrated. Hemingway, of course, popped in and drank awhile. Barbara Hutton, Peggy Guggenheim, Orson Welles and Truman Capote too. But I'm getting ahead of, or behind, myself.
By the late '80s, Harry's Bar was so well known it was something of a tourist trap, or so I considered it. No matter how many times I'd been to Venice, I never crossed its door — until my then-beau Fred, who was visiting me in Venice for the first time, insisted on going to Harry's Bar for a Bellini.
I turned up my nose and tried to talk him out of it with no success. And so, one early summer evening in Venice, I found myself turning off narrow Calle Vallaresso into Harry's for one of the bar's famous Bellinis.
The impeccably attired barman put a glass of the chilled drink in my hand. The scent of white peaches floated up from the rim. I took a sip. How lovely. How summery. How easy to drink on this warm night. And the bar, well, it was swell. We lingered on. I had another Bellini. And wished for another. But we never went back. Our budget was such we couldn't afford it.
So we decided to make our own. We were staying in my old college roommate's apartment while he, a Venetian, was away. We found white peaches at the Rialto Market and bought a couple of bottles of Prosecco, the sparkling wine from the Veneto, at a wine bar I trusted to give me the good stuff.
Back at the apartment, when we couldn't find a juicer or blender — nothing to savage those peaches (neither he nor his girlfriend was much of a cook) — we ended up simply squeezing the juicy ripe peaches with our hands. It actually was messy and fun and hilarious.
And there we were, the sun setting over the canal, hanging out the window, drinking our handmade Bellinis. That night and every night until that brief idyll in Venice ended.
These days, Fred and I use the blender or an old glass lemon juicer to juice the peaches. The blender is easier by far, but unless you don't mind peach sludge clinging to the sides of your Champagne flute, it's a good idea to pass the whizzed peach through a fine strainer. It's important to chill both the Prosecco and the peach juice very well — juice the peaches early in the day and if you get a last-minute bottle of Prosecco, put it in the freezer for a while before serving.
I generally don't like mine sweetened, but if your fruit needs it, use simple syrup, a mixture of half water and half sugar heated on the stove until dissolved and then cooled before sweetening your peach juice to taste.
I've tried all sorts of proportions, but the one that works best is about one-third peach juice to two-thirds Prosecco, adding the peach juice to the glass first and pouring the Prosecco on top. There. You're done. I should mention that at Harry's Bar, the proportion is one part peach juice to three parts Prosecco.
Since white peaches vary even from week to week, I generally go around the farmers market and taste all the white peaches and white nectarines before deciding what to buy. Last week, I thought the white nectarines had more flavor than the peaches and got them instead. They work perfectly and maybe even better. You can use yellow peaches too (but the barman at Harry's Bar would disapprove), and in that case, I'd throw a few raspberries into the blender to give the juice a beautiful coral color. It's good, but not as good as the original, I have to say.
A few weeks ago, I found some stupendous ripe little melons at the market — some green, some orange — and decided to try a melon Bellini. My husband, though, decided to blend them together. Obviously, he's never taken a color theory class and wasn't aware that orange plus green give a color that's halfway to brown.
Now I'm thinking, I'd like to try a variation on a Bellini made with juicy little pears. But I'll have to wait until fall to try that experiment.
Meanwhile, it's going to be peach season for a while, time enough to make a summer's worth of Bellinis. And when I think of all the money I'm saving rather than if I'd been indulging in them at Harry's Bar in Venice, I can't help but feel very virtuous. In fact, I think I'll have another right now.
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