Portrait of a Bellini
For the most part, arriving at any new destination is unremarkable, since airports and freeways have a generic sameness no matter where they are. For me, traveling to Venice for the first time was an exception. Even the name of the train I was on was impressive, the Direct Orient Express. Leaving Santa Lucia Station, I boarded a water taxi—the No. 1 vaporetto—that would transport me up the Grand Canal and into another world. It was a warm August evening and the gothic marble palazzos that edged the water—just like in a Canaletto painting—were tinted pink and gold by the setting sun. I can still hear the diesel engine of the boat, churning up waves, and the squawk of the sea gulls. The air had the scent of salt from the Adriatic and the underlying musk of mildew and antiquity. I watched openmouthed as famous landmarks like the Rialto Bridge and the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute passed me by, headed toward my destination, the Piazza San Marco. Critics of the city will say it is moldering, expensive and full of tourists. Undeniably it is one of the most sensual and beautiful manmade places on earth.
One of Venice’s relatively modern monuments is Harry’s Bar. Giuseppe Cipriani opened the now famous restaurant in 1931 and named it after his American patron, Harry Pickering. Cipriani worked as a barman at one of the city’s most elegant hotels and wanted his own bar and restaurant to be luxurious, but without the pomp so prevalent at other places then. His genius for simplicity—in décor, service and food—became the hallmark of Harry’s Bar that survives to this day.
It soon became a hangout for the likes of Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. For 30 years the place was little more than one small ground floor room. In the 1960s, the restaurant was able to negotiate a lease for the upstairs and added a new dining room with impressive views of San Marco and Giudecca across the Canal. The Cipriani
family still runs Harry’s Bar long with many other prestigious restaurants and hotels around the world.
Probably the two most famous dishes created at Harry’s Bar are Carpaccio and the Bellini, each named after a Venetian Renaissance painter. Carpaccio—paper thin slices of raw beef filet—and the Bellini—white peach juice and Prosecco—demonstrate the restaurant’s success with minimalism. That’s not to say that both dishes don’t require skill and a deft hand to properly execute, especially the Bellini.
Originally, Harry’s Bar only made the drink seasonally—June through September—when fresh white peaches were available. White peaches are essential to give the drink its proper rosy blush. The bar eventually had to employ someone who did nothing all day but cut, pit and squeeze peaches by hand. As the demand for the drink grew, they switched to using a chinois
—a French devise used to puree fruits and vegetables. Today, the Bellini is on the menu year round, thanks to frozen white peach puree produced for them exclusively in France.
The Bellini’s only other ingredient is Prosecco, a sparkling white wine made locally from a grape of the same name. It was hardly known outside Italy before the fame of the cocktail spread. In the past decade Prosecco has become increasingly available in this country, enjoyed as both an aperitif and substitute for champagne as a mixer in drinks.
The original Harry’s Bar recipe calls for combining one part peach puree to three parts sparkling white wine. It specifies that the peaches should always be pureed by hand, using a food mill rather than a machine. Both the puree and Prosecco should be very cold and sometime a little sugar syrup is added if the peaches are very tart. Harry’s always serves the Bellini in a well-chilled tumbler, but elsewhere a champagne flute is often used.
The problem with making a flawless Bellini hereabouts, of course, is finding ripe white peaches which are essential to the drink’s success. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find frozen white peach puree. I hav
e tried a couple of bottled Bellini mixes but they weren’t very good.
I came across the best hint watching the “Two Fat Ladies”—Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson—on the Food Network. The Bellini was one of Jennifer’s favorite cocktails—and I have a feeling that’s saying quite a lot. She suggested that if the peaches weren’t perfectly ripe, just leave them out and drink the Prosecco. But, she also recommended adding peach schnapps to the peach puree to give it a flavor boost. That is what I now do. I’ve also tried using defrosted but undiluted frozen peach daiquiri mix. It provides excellent flavor but you will loose the characteristic pink color if you add too much.
For me, making this drink that pleases the eye as much as the palate is a rite of summer. Even if it turns out less than perfect, I will savor it nonetheless and think of Venice.