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Focus June 2017

Arrigo Cipriani: a sensationally ‘contrarian’ interview

“Chefs are ruining excellent Italian cuisine”. But is this true?

Arrigo Cipriani, the legendary owner of Harry’s Bar in Venice, caused a stir with an interview given to the able journalist Aldo Cazzullo of the Corriere della Sera. What, in essence, did the 85-year-old Cipriani say? That authentic Italian cuisine is found in trattorie (informal taverns). And that he’s always opposed the stars awarded by the ‘tyre guide’ (as he calls the Michelin guide) and narcissism in chefs, who should remain in the kitchen. In brief, the article’s title thunders: “Chefs are ruining excellent Italian cuisine. Only cooks work for me”. The Academy has never liked the word ‘chef’, which better suits the head of the kitchen staff, but here we are dealing with deeper issues. Let us for a moment set aside the glorious history of this iconic locale a stone’s throw from St Mark’s Square. It is common knowledge by now that it was founded in 1931 by Arrigo’s father Giuseppe and that over the years its regulars have included such celebrities as Hemingway, Orson Welles, Liz Taylor with Richard Burton, Onassis, Agnelli and many others. Today its parent company Cipriani SA employs 400 cooks in 26 restaurants worldwide. And Arrigo, the consummate connoisseur, has the luxury of opposing Marchesi (initiator of this decline), Cracco (purveyor of unpleasant food), Cannavacciuolo (he’s written more books than Proust), Bottura (somewhat heavy), and Vissani (despite his likeability). He has previously inveighed against MasterChef, rectangular, long or irregular plates, and large or oddly shaped forks. He also loathes tasting menus which force diners to eat what the chef decides. “Cipriani thought” also maintains that Italian cuisine has become a shoddy version of French cooking and that these starred chefs are driving restaurants to soullessness. Their dishes aim only to display the skill of those preparing them. Overall, such sentiments often flicker in the minds of many aficionados of Italian cuisine. Finally someone speaks frankly! This, however, also represents a regression of over 50 years, when the owner presided over the till welcoming patrons while the cooks lurked silently in the kitchen plying their mysterious trade. Never mind Paul Bocuse’s epoch-making revolution: undone! But how’s the food these days at Harry’s Bar’s historic location at 1323 Calle Vallaresso? TripAdvisor mauls it: over a third of its 1,900-plus reviews pronounce it lacking or even awful a real rout! The Espresso guide mentions it, but without assigning a score, recounting: “Harry’s Bar is more than a restaurant; it’s a locus of the collective imagination. Its jovial atmosphere, swarms of waiters and historically seminal dishes are timeless and unchanged: carpaccio, tagliolini au gratin, Venetian liver – with two mains and a dessert costing over 150 Euros”. The ‘tyre guide’ fails to mention it and our Academy’s Guide assigns it three Temples. The atmosphere is priceless: one breathes legend; a Bellini at the bar is an essential respite. Venice’s history is human history, a monument to the old Venetian aristocratic tradition. This unique locale, always thronged and almost magical, cannot be judged by the palate alone; one mustn’t be taken aback by the high prices (Venice abounds in far higher ones). One adapts one’s judgement and standards. Arrigo Cipriani’s verdicts form an integral part of his personality and in any case, rightly or wrongly, spring from his boundless love of his work and his hometown.

Paolo Petroni
President of the Academy