From Harry's Bar to the Dubai Mall: How Arrigo Cipriani built a restaurant empire

The irreverent Italian octogenarian reflects on the ups and downs of seven decades in the hospitality industry

At the age of 89, with a family name that is recognised the world over, Arrigo Cipriani has earned the right to be irreverent.

He famously refers to the Michelin Guide as "that tyre guide"; has been a vocal critic of Italy's Covid-19 lockdown strategies; dubs nouvelle cuisine a "revolution of the rich"; blames Facebook for turning us all into robots; and credits Gordon Ramsay with destroying Britain's culinary heritage. And that's just within the first 15 minutes of our conversation.

I meet the impeccably dressed Italian restaurateur at the Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, where, in a corner of the lobby lounge, he regales me with anecdotes of celebrity encounters, his cutting assessment of the modern dining scene and recollections from his 70 years working at Harry’s Bar, the world-famous venue established by his father in Venice in the 1930s.

Arrigo Cipriani. Courtesy Arrigo Cipriani

Ostensibly, we are here to talk about the family’s latest venture in the UAE, Cipriani Dolci, which opens this month in The Dubai Mall’s Fashion Avenue. But, as I soon learn, a conversation with Arrigo is not a linear thing – you are whisked from 1930s Venice to 1980s New York to modern-day UAE in a matter of sentences; a question about the luxury industry leads to reflections on death; and most conversational threads loop back to his father, the formidable Giuseppe Cipriani.

The Cipriani story starts 90 years ago, in Venice, when Giuseppe opened Harry’s Bar in a quiet corner of the city on May 13, 1931. As the story goes, in 1929, Harry Pickering, a descendant of a wealthy Boston family, arrived in Venice and spent two months at the Europa Hotel – largely in the bar where Giuseppe worked. When Pickering’s family cut him off financially because of his decadent lifestyle, Giuseppe lent him 10,000 Italian lira, a large amount of money in those days, so the American could get back home.

Harry's Bar in Venice, Italy, 8th September 1998. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

Two years later, Pickering returned to Venice to repay his debt. “Mr Cipriani, thank you,” he reportedly said. “Here’s the money. And to show you my appreciation, here’s 40,000 lira more, enough to open a bar. We will call it Harry’s Bar.” Incidentally, Arrigo is the Italian for Harry – but Giuseppe named his son after the bar, not the other way around.

Harry’s Bar soon became a favourite with artists, writers and aristocracy. Ernest Hemingway was a regular, but you might also have stumbled across Charlie Chaplin, Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Aristotle Onassis, Katharine Hepburn or Baron Philippe de Rothschild in the tiny warehouse facing the Grand Canal. “My father chose to open in a place where all the shops went bankrupt, because there was no connection with San Marco square; it was a dead end. He wanted to have it there, because he said he wanted customers to come, not because they happened to pass in front of it, but because they decided to come there. Motivation is the key,” Arrigo tells me.

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Ernest Hemingway, Giuseppe Cipriani (owner of Harry's Bar), and server at Harry's Bar, Venice. Please credit "Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston."

Harry’s Bar is famed for inventing carpaccio – in 1950, countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo, one of the venue’s regular customers, arrived for lunch and announced that her doctor had put her on a “no cooked meat diet”; Giuseppe retreated to the kitchen and promptly reappeared with what came to be known as Carpaccio alla Cipriani, a selection of paper-thin sheets of raw filet mignon laced with a white sauce, named in reference to the red and white paintings of Italian artist Vittore Carpaccio. The venue was declared a national landmark in 2001 by the Italian ministry for cultural affairs.

From the beginning, the Cipriani aesthetic has been uncluttered and unpretentious. At Harry’s Bar, simple trattoria-style food was served on three-legged tables, and this ethos is the cornerstone of the Cipriani brand, Arrigo says. “We can call it the complexity of simplicity, because simplicity is also complex. I have had the most famous people come into Harry’s Bar, and they are very simple. They don’t insist on having that specific table… because they don’t need that table. They’ll sit anywhere.”

Nicole Kidman and Lauren Bacall at the Harry's Bar in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Jeff Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images)

It all comes down to “a lack of imposition”, he says. “Restaurants have music. That’s wrong. The music of restaurants should be people talking. That is the only music you need. Anything else is an imposition. A restaurant is a place people sit, come together and talk to each other. They have good food and good service. And that’s it.

“We don’t impose anything on our customers. We don’t impose a menu – there is no degustation menu. You can choose whatever you want. I am not against chefs who have three stars or two stars, but they want to show people they are good. No, you have to do things well, nothing else. And you have to keep doing things well, and not just to show that you are good.”

Arrigo identifies 1968 as the year when the food scene changed for ever – but not necessarily for the better. “There was a revolution, but a revolution for rich people. In 1968, rich people wanted to change the world, so they rejected tradition. But tradition is the content, the inside of things. And if you don’t have a combination of content and form, there is something missing. Nouvelle cuisine is just about the look. Serving things on a serving plate. But what’s important about food is not just the look of it, but the taste on the inside; that is what your body wants.”

In 1985, Arrigo and his son, also named Giuseppe, arrived in New York, ready to take on the city's dining scene. They started with Harry Cipriani, located on the ground floor of New York's Sherry-Netherland Hotel, on Fifth Avenue. Once again, socialites and celebrities flocked, from Madonna and John Travolta, to Richard Gere and Mickey Rourke, as well as three James Bonds – Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. More outposts and enormous success followed, but so did scandal, including a long-running spat with Bryan Miller, restaurant critic at The New York Times; a highly publicised dispute with the unions; rumours of mob connections; and a 2007 conviction for tax evasion.

I ask Arrigo whether, if he could go back and live his life over, he would do anything differently. “There are always mistakes. Life is full of mistakes. The important thing is that the mistakes are fewer than the things you got right,” is his response. “One thing my father always used to say: ‘Life is not too serious’. Don’t ever take life too seriously. A sense of humour is the key.”

A handout photo of Cipriani Yas Island (Courtesy: Cipriani Yas Island) *** Local Caption ***  al21no-cover-cipriani.jpg

Arrigo’s son, Giuseppe, can be credited with driving the international expansion of the brand, which now has outposts in Ibiza, Moscow, Monte Carlo, Hong Kong, New York, Las Vegas, Miami and Mexico City, as well as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Cipriani Dubai opened in DIFC in 2016, while Cipriani Abu Dhabi has been in the capital since 2011. “My son developed the business around the whole world,” Arrigo says. “But he didn’t change it. He’s a man that looks at all the details. He is much better than I was.”

Cipriani Dolci Dubai will offer all the brand’s signatures, as well as decadent desserts and traditional Italian pastries. “At a certain point about 35 years ago, I had a new location in Venice that was very very lovely, but quite different from Harry’s Bar.

“It was my father who told me to buy it – and he wanted to create a pastry shop. It was on an island, not far from Venice, but I realised that people would not take a boat just to have a piece of cake. So it slowly became a restaurant. It’s a lovely restaurant with a beautiful view. And the name Dolci, which means sweets, because of the pastry, remained. Later on, in New York, we chose another place for Cipriani Dolci, and we’ve decided to duplicate the name in Dubai,” Arrigo explains.

This third venture in the UAE is a mark of Arrigo’s regard for the country. “I’m in love with this place,” he tells me. “Because you are thinking of the future. And in our countries, everybody is becoming stupid.”

After seven decades in the hospitality industry, Arrigo still spends much of his time at Harry’s Bar, serving guests as his family has done for close to a century. “It’s a beautiful business,” he says. “You can learn all the time.

“It is like a newspaper. Before it is written, there is nothing. And every day, you can create a wonderful newspaper, or a bad newspaper. It depends on what you write. A restaurant is the same thing. Each day when you start, everything is uncooked, and you can do it well or really badly.”