Harry's Finds Answer to High Prices

Sontag is a San Clemente free-lance writer.

To those visitors who always wanted to go to Harry's Bar but couldn't afford the astonishingly high prices, take heart.

Arrigo Cipriani, owner of the world-famous restaurant and watering hole, has just opened a new place that charges less than half as much for much of the same fare.

He calls it Harry's Dolci (sweets or desserts) and it's on the nearby island of Giudecca, less than 15 minutes via vaporetto (water bus) from S. Zaccaria, the stop closest to the Doges Palace. Take the No. 5 or No. 8 line and get off at S. Eufemia on Giudecca.

This is the pilot model of a chain of four, Cipriani said. The other three will open soon in Padua, Treviso and Vicenza, all within 45 minutes of Venice by car.

Although definitely not Harry's Bar clones, all of the Dolci will offer many of the food and drink specialties that helped push Harry's Bar to international fame and a two-star rating in the Michelin Guide. That's no easy accomplishment in Italy, a country in which not a single restaurant holds a three-star (highest) rating.

A Central Kitchen

The huge difference between Bar and Dolci prices comes about by the nature of the new Dolci operation: All food and baked goods are prepared in a central kitchen/bakery and sent to each location.

The recently completed cooking/baking facility is only a quarter-mile away from the Dolci, in an old warehouse acquired and extensively remodeled by Cipriani. It already produces all of the pasta for Harry's Bar.

No food will be frozen, Cipriani said, just chilled to a low temperature for the ride to the outlying outlets, and will be made fresh daily.

This not new yet still novel approach drastically reduces both food and labor costs on a per-unit basis, Cipriani explained, because no cooking is planned at any Dolci location, just warming.

Through the years Cipriani has never apologized for the high and getting higher prices at Harry's Bar, asserting that "it takes a staff of 70 to run Harry's Bar." That number includes all of the customary employee help but also a few boatmen and laundry employees.

Cipriani said candidly that Harry's Bar customers are "paying a great deal for that labor." He added almost gleefully that "it takes only five persons, including one cook, to operate a Dolci location."

Item-for-Item Basis

The impact of those lower costs is dramatic when one compares Bar and Dolci menu items:

A Bellini (fresh peach juice and Spumanti, the Italian equivalent of French Champagne), the Bar's most popular aperitivo , costs 8,600 lire. Based on recent exchange rates, which give Americans about 1,700 lire to the dollar, the drink is just over $5. At the Dolci, however, that tab is only 4,000 lire, $2.35.

Another Bar specialty is Carpaccio , which sends many raw meat lovers into hosannas. The dish consists of six paper-thin slices of the best filet of beef Cipriani can buy, served raw, and over which is drizzled a lip-smacking mustard sauce. (That sauce has brought such compliments that Cipriani has begun bottling it for large-scale distribution.) At the Bar, Carpaccio costs 30,500 lire ($18) and at the Dolci 12,000 lire ($7).

Are you beginning to get the idea?

To keep your wallet even fatter, Cipriani dropped both cover and service charges at the Dolci. When dining at Harry's Bar, all customers seated at tables (at the bar only drinks and sandwiches are served) are each hit with a 4,800-lire ($2.80) cover charge. On top of that, to every table's bill is added a 20% service charge (that does take care of the tip). The service charge is universal in Europe but few if any top 15%.

My wife and I were introduced to the Dolci by a longtime Venetian friend, Pierandrea Molon, sales director of Salviati's, one of the city's oldest and most respected glassmakers. He promised us "something new" on our next-to-last day in Venice.

Non-Imposing Storefront

The Dolci is just off the S. Eufemia vaporetto stop on Giudecca. A neat, non-imposing storefront entrance opens to a room of white-tiled walls. The whiteness is broken only by teak-colored beams across the ceiling. Super simple. No formal bar. Drinks served at your table.

The day's antipasto (before the pasta) offerings were tastefully laid out on a white-clothed table. A young woman spooned onto our plates our choices of antipasto misto (11,000 lire/$6.45), small helpings of many cold delicacies.

Besides the big price difference at the Dolci, the menu does not carry as many main course selections as the Bar. However, on an across-the-board selection basis, it is quite sufficient for a full meal. The day we lunched there the menu listed six hot dishes.

The menu also contains the regular Bar wine list--all at lower prices--and a lot of house tortes, cakes, pastries, ice creams and ices.

No question, an American couple can enjoy a complete dinner at the Dolci, including an aperitivo and a medium carafe of wine, for about $25. A similar meal at the Bar would easily run $75 to $100, depending upon main-course selection.

Reams of copy have been written about the exciting ambiance of Harry's Bar. The scene is to see and be seen. But over at the Dolci it's more like just a nice place, as Cipriani put it, where "we want to serve something very good at a decent price and with a smile." And the five employees do smile. You feel comfortable.

Only One Seating

At the Dolci there is only one seating, and the patrons, 80% Italian by Cipriani's measure, like to make an evening out of dinner.

Canalside, at the Dolci, white umbrellas and chairs overlook the Giudecca Canal. Most of the group the day we lunched there preferred the alfresco style. Good weather in Venice usually lasts from mid-May to mid-October, marred only by occasional showers.

Cipriani's smile broadened as he told of other ventures:

--His fresh peach juice, along with a regular-size bottle of Spumanti--the only ingredients of his Bellini--have been combined in a single package for worldwide distribution by Cinzano, the giant Italian spirits maker. Cinzano's Spumanti, his peach juice, pasteurized, no preservatives, in a small glass jar, together in a colorful cylinder-shaped package.

--A school for making and cooking pasta will open next year, using the bakery/kitchen facility on Giudecca. A one- or two-week course is planned for the general public, a six-month course for professionals.

Cipriani pledged--on tape--that the "prices will remain the same at the Dolci. The only difference will be the increase in inflation. That has to be."

Harry's Dolci, Giudecca, S. Eufemia 773, phone 041/24844.

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