The Cipriani Empire | A history of bold moves, beauties and bellinis
Society7 Minutes Read

The Cipriani Empire | A history of bold moves, beauties and bellinis

December 11, 2020 Share

Anyone who is well travelled and well versed in the migration patterns of the great and good knows the name Cipriani. 

The very mention of it immediately conjures up images of beautiful people living the beautiful life in timeless classic Italian elegance. 

A family run business since its modest origins as Harry’s Bar in Venice – no other restaurant operator has done more to re-craft the image of Italian cuisine abroad and export the delicate sensibility of European luxury.

Now, after nearly a century of being a favorite amongst the most glamorous patrons around the world and introducing staples such as the carpaccio (invented by Cipriani for the Countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo that had been instructed by her doctor to only eat raw meat) and the bellini (created in 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, using the abundant white peaches that grow in Italy) the Cipriani empire continues to grow into hotels, bars, restaurants and even members clubs. 

DDW takes a look at the past and present of Cipriani, wading through colourful decades of drinks, playboys, scandals and mafia allegations:

The beginnings

Harry’s Bar

Harry’s Bar

Like many great stories, this one also begins with a drink. Harry Pickering, a wealthy young American had been sent to Europe to ‘dry out’ after his family decided that his drinking had become a socially uncomfortable problem in their native Boston. 

Accompanied by his mother, her gigolo and her Pekingese as chaperones; Harry set up residence at the Hotel Europa in Venice. There, a young and charismatic bartender named Giuseppe Cipriani was working behind the bar and became fast friends with the precocious American as he made his daily trips down for cocktails.

Carpaccio and Bellini, both invented at Cipriani

However one day, Pickering just stopped showing up. Eventually finding him – Cipriani asked Harry why he had disappeared and he went on to explain that he was broke after to his family abruptly cut him off. 

In response, Cipriani put together what he could and lent him 10,000 lire (about $500 dollars). Two years later, Pickering returned to the hotel bar, ordered a drink, and gave Cipriani 50,000 lire in return. “Mr. Cipriani, thank you,” he said, according to the Cipriani website – “Here’s the money. And to show you my appreciation, here’s another 40,000 more, enough to open a bar. We will call it Harry’s Bar.” And thus, the iconic bar was born.

Not long after its launch the bar became a staple of fashionable travelers, hosting everyone from royalty (it is said that at one lunch in 1935 there were five Monarchs eating at Harry’s) through you Hemingway and Orwell.

The Cipriani Hotel – Venice

Hotel Cipriani

With the wild instant success of Harry’s came international fame, every fashionable house and party around the US and Europe was talking about Giuseppe and Harry’s elegant bolt hole restaurant in Venice.

Giuseppe knew that he had to expand to meet demand, his 15×30 venue would not be enough – he dreamed of setting up a hotel on the small private island across the canal. 

That island happened to be owned by British aristocrat Rupert Guinness who had had a summer home built on it. Upon hearing that Cipriani wanted it as a hotel, he approached him and struck a deal. As with Harry’s, the Cipriani hotel became an instant success with the jet set.

Years later – the Ciprianis would sell the hotel (now owned by LVMH hotel group Orient Express) and end in an acrimonious legal battle over the Cipriani name trademark in many regions of the world.

The First Expansion

New York City

Harry Cipriani

Back in the US, renowned British hotelier Lord Charles Forte (father of Rocco Forte) was vying to win the management contract of the Sherry Netherland Hotel on the corner of Central Park in Manhattan (on 59th and 60th). To convince the existing owners, he conjured a plan to bring over the famed Venetian society hot-spot Harry’s Bar to replace the hotel’s existing failing restaurant. 

After much negotiation with both the Cipranis and the hotel owners, he succeeded in doing so – bringing Cipriani for the first time to the big Apple.

Arrigo (Giuseppe’s son, named ‘Harry’ in Italian after the bar) and Giuseppe Jr. (in his 20’s at the time) headed to New York City to make what would become their fortune.

As Forte expected-  the new restaurant was a smashing success, taking mid 1980’s NYC by storm. 

Reservations were coveted and difficult to come by, and in true NYC fashion the customers were a long string of well-known names, from Robert de Niro and Calvin Klein to John F Kennedy Jr. and Diane von Furstenberg.

With success fame and notoriety came a subsequent string of complications with landlords and media. The new hot spot was not enough to convince the hotel to take on Forte’s management and eventually closed down (only to reopen a few years later and remain to this day) but Cipriani had already made its indelible mark on the city.

Cipriani Downtown – NYC

Arrigo’s dashing son Giuseppe was now a fixture in NY society and he was determined to conquer the rest of Gotham. With the success of Harry Cipriani he took on the challenge of opening new venues across the city, eventually taking over a t-shirt shop in SoHo and opening the ever fashionable Cipriani Downtown and then taking on the original 1800’s stock exchange on Wall Street with Cipriani Club 55

To any observer – the immense success of the Cipriani restaurants across town felt unstoppable; every restaurant was busy and the clientele were the very cream of the crop – however, underneath, trouble was brewing. 

Giuseppe Cipriani Jr.

The expansion to the storied Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Centre (then owned by a consortium that included the Agnelli and Niarchos families, among others) and proposed ‘Leonardo’ Italian theme park and hotel on Pier 57 were nothing short of catastrophic. With them came controversy, union troubles and back-to-back scandals including an alleged and much publicised tie-in with the mob (mobster John Gotti testified in court that his ‘family’ had been hired to ’stop’ union troubles at Cipriani in Rockefeller Centre).

It took years to recover from the scandal, so much so that Arrigo and Giuseppe eventually went into exile (after admitting to tax evasion crimes in federal court). Arrigo headed back to Italy whilst Giuseppe went on the war path, refusing to sit still.

The Second Expansion

The World

Giuseppe was now a globally recognised name amongst high society (among other things, a well-known playboy with a long string of high profile romantic attachments) and he intended to make the Cipriani brand even more present all over the world. During his forced sojourn in exile he kept busy by striking deals with landlords around the globe, going from London to Abu Dhabi, Moscow, Monte Carlo, Hong Kong, Ibiza, Las Vegas, Mexico City, Riyadh, Dubai, Miami opening a string of venues that would see the famous Cipriani ‘Bellini maker’ logo appear in capitals the world over and gain a whole new slate of fans.

Cipriani Abu Dhabi

As expected, the appetite for Cipriani was universal – it seemed everyone was hungry for their particular offering of glamorous surroundings and comfortable Italian fare. The next stage was Giuseppe’s dream – hotels.

Cipriani Punta del Este

The Mr. C Hotel opened in Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills and was followed by residences and hotels in NYC, Miami and in the near future – Punta del Este in Uruguay. Giuseppe jr. it seemed, had managed to rekindle his grandfather’s dream of owning hotels. 

The natural next chapter was member’s clubs.

The Clubs

Above SoHo’s Cipriani Downton an idea began to emerge; why not turn the under utilised office space into a small private member’s lounge? This idea percolated in Giuseppe’s mind until it emerged as Socialista, a Cuban-inspired glamorous take on the bars of the past; small, comfortable and most important of all, away from the prying  eyes of the press. 

Finally allowed to return to NYC, the Ciprianis insisted on being away from the cameras where possible and Giuseppe’s celebrity friends could not agree more. Leonardo di Caprio was an immediate fan, spending an enormous amount of time at Socialista and being joined by a famously never-ending rotation of Victoria Secret Models and fellow actors. 

Socialista above Cipriani Downtown

As with its restaurant cousins the Socialista brand expanded to include popular haunts in London’s Mayfair, and more crucially – Miami where it is currently the epicentre of boutique nightlife.

DDW hears reports of further member’s clubs are coming in NYC’s Governor’s Island, Midtown Manhattan and even Uruguay. 

The Future

The famous bellini – named after the Venetian painter

There is an indisputable sense of sprezzatura that permeates each one of the Cipriani venues. They carry within the type of movie-star confidence only achieved after becoming a global icon and beating all the odds. There is no doubt that we will see their flag stake new ground in far flung corners of the globe as it enters the fourth generation of the family’s management – the question is will it last? We certainly think so, and hope it does. Until then, we invite you to join us for a bellini and a baked tagliolini.


UP NEXT: Wheels up – it’s PJ time…

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