Dec 3, 2011

Carpaccio recipe from Harry's Bar, Venice

Carpaccio was for a long time the most popular dish served at Harry’s Bar in Venice. It is named after Vittore Carpaccio, the Venetian Renaissance painter known for his use of brilliant reds and whites in the minute detail of his infinite perspective landscapes.

Giuseppe Cipriani, the Bar's historic owner, invented and named the dish in reference to the Venetian painter, because the colors of the dish reminded him of his paintings. It was 1950, the year of the great Carpaccio exhibition in Venice.
Vittore Carpaccio

The Harry's Bar Carpaccio dish was inspired by capricious Contessa Amalia Nani Mocenigo, a local regular at Harry's Bar. Her doctor had put her on a strict diet recommending she eat only raw meat.

The original Harry's Bar delicacy is still made by covering a plate with the thinnest possible slices of raw beef and garnishing them with a secret dressing that is drizzled over the beef in a crosshatch, Kandisnsky-style pattern. It is proverbially called the "universal sauce."
Harry's Bar in Venice

I was raised on a strict Harry's Bar diet of Carpaccio and Risotto Primavera, myself. Those were the days when going to Venice for the weekend was a given, and money wasn't an issue. The source of our family's financial ease was the talented work and infinite generosity of my grandfather Vittorio De Sica.
Family portrait on my 2nd birthday

My fondest memories of him are not glamourous, nor show business-related, they are personal. The vivid images and toasted coffee aroma of our Sunday afternoons spent together still linger in my mind when I think of him. Nonno would nap after having lunch with us, wrapped in a brown cashmere plaid throw, lying on the day bed in what later became my bedroom. I'd be the one to wake him, softly tiptoeing in the dimly lit room, carrying a tray with a small demitasse of espresso, which he'd sip quietly. 

The bottom of the cup was my prize, a tiny ring of coffee-tinted sugar that had not quite melted. I'd draw the drapes open and we'd play for a half hour, during which I would frequently show him my latest dance coreographies. My clumsy pirouettes, that would usually land me on my rear end, would obviously make him chuckle, but he never showed it, giving my performance the professional judgement of an unbiased director. Nonno would often tell me where to improve or applaud the less disastrous ones. Then he'd leave, cloaked in his grey flannel suit, elegant and smelling of blue Pantène hair cologne and weathered leather, like his gloves. A wink and a smile on the doorstep and he was gone, 'til the following week.

My grandfather's successful career ended too soon. Cinema lost one of its greatest modern film making artists in 1974 to lung cancer, and my playful Sunday afternoons with Nonno were no more.
Mom, me and Nonna in Venice
with mom and Nonna Titta on the Grand Canal
I don't care if I don't go to Venice for the weekend any more. I've never been a fool for fancy clothes or elegant hotels. I love to travel and eat, and I still do that, on a shoestring. And since I could charm my way through a restaurant kitchen from age five, I managed to snatch the secret Carpaccio recipe. For free.

1.3 kg (3 lb) beef sirloin, whole
3/4 cup homemade mayonnaise
1–2 tsp Worcestershire sauce, adjust quantity to taste
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
2–3 tbsp whole milk
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

First of all, make the carpaccio "universal sauce," which is the focal point of this dish. The above-mentioned quantities yield about 250 ml (1 cup). Any leftover can last about 3 days, stored chilled in a closed container.

Put the mayonnaise in a bowl and add the Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice, and blend with a whisk.

Add enough milk to thin the sauce, so it just barely coats the back of a dry wooden spoon. Taste and adjust seasoning, with more Worcestershire sauce and/or lemon juice if necessary.

OK, now the tricky part.

According to tradition, the best carpaccio is made with beef sirloin, and the flavorful meat must never be frozen before slicing. Of course it's easier to slice barely thawed beef, but we're not taking any shortcuts today.

Carpaccio can also be made with beef tenderloin filet, which has a milder flavor than sirloin and is much easier to handle. Ask the butcher to trim the meat for you. You may even be able to convince him to slice it, but do so only if you plan to serve your carpaccio an hour or 2 later, tops.

If you decide to slice the meat yourself, please be careful, I nearly lost a fingertip once.

Trim every bit of fat, gristle, sinew from the sirloin, leaving a small cylinder of tender, lean meat.

Chill the meat for 30 minutes, then using a long-bladed razor-sharp knife, slice the meat paper-thin and arrange the slices on individual salad plates, covering the surface completely. Makes about six servings. Some folks like to sprinkle some shaved Parmigiano at this point. I don't, preferring to maintain the flavors and simplicity intact.

Drizzle the universal sauce decoratively over the meat, and serve immediately.

Harry's Bar Carpaccio with Universal Sauce

I quite like this with a properly stored Valpolicella: light in body, low in tannin, and redolent of tart red cherries.

Buon appetito.


  1. Che buono! I just found your blog a few days ago and I think it's fantastic.

  2. nice...thanks for the glimpse into your family lola...and for the secret recipe...i will share with no one of course...smiles.

  3. Your grandfather was a great filmmaker, one of the greatest!

    And how lovely to see carpaccio in its original form. And to think how this simple concept has given rise to such an incredible variety of dishes. Nice to get back to basics once in a while…

  4. Brava-

    For your story and the recipe.


  5. Love your family story/history. Many thanks for the secret recipe, you are very generous. Keep on blogging about food etc. Miranda

  6. KC~
    Thank you! Come back soon then :)

    Shhh! Thanks, friend.

    Grazie amico mio. Truly.

    Happy you enjoyed it ;)

    Thank you for your kind comment!

    One that speaks of love, family, and memories...


  7. What a lovely story of your family memories.

  8. Janie~
    Thank you! I think personal stories are so much more interesting than just a recipe... ;)

  9. It certainly explains your eye for photography: it's in your blood.

    By the way, I did step into Harry's. It's a rather unimpressive place, in my view. Your carpaccio looks good, though!

  10. ciao, What a wonderful story. Thank you so much for the recipe. I've had this dish at Harry's Bar each time (twice) I've visited Venice. I love this city!

    Mille Grazie


  11. What a coup to have this carpaccio recette from Harry's Bar. I will definitely make it sometime with all the good beef available in Montana and the homemade mayo sauce.

    I love that film your grandfather directed - Bicycle Thieves - i had no idea that was your nonno Vittorio De Siva!

    Such a poignantly tough story of post WWI and what the papas had to do to support families - or were up against.

    And aren't you a doll baby with your parents in the old photo. Did you cut your hair short recently?

    I agree with all the others - you could be a great tv food show host. Remember Lorenza di Medici and her cooking show? Loved it!

  12. Jeff~
    To me Harry's Bar exudes that sophisticated, low key elegance of its '50 heyday.

    I love Venice too! I hope to go back soon :)

    I did cut my hair, it's now shorter than my little boy's!
    I'm not so into hosting a cooking show, than I would be getting a book deal. Some say it's easier to land the former than getting the latter! I am actually hosting a web-series in which I interview celebrity chefs. You can see the episodes here: Cibando

  13. Can't wait to try this recipe. Thank you for sharing the memories of your nonno and the link to Cibando. Your interview with Angelo Troiani is fantastic. I'm looking forward to watching more of your celebrity chef interviews!

  14. Gina~
    Thank you! I'm happy you enjoyed this post, I had fun writing it :)

  15. Me encanta tu blog y por esa regla de tres me hago seguidora,un besote chaooo!!

  16. The first time I ate a carpaccio in an Italian restaurant here in the US I fell in love with its simplicity and taste. I make it often, as my family loves good raw beef (I go the easy way and use beef tenderloin, although, my best carpaccio was made from dear meat:)
    I am so awestruck that your Nonno was the great Vittorio De Sica - I have seen many of his movies while I studied Italian at the University of Belgrade.
    Happy New Year!

  17. Now I see where you get your sense of style and drama! How exciting that your grandfather was Vittorio De Sica - I also loved The Bicycle Thief! Thank you for sharing your private moments with him. Lovely memories.

  18. The presentation is superb. The recipe is so simple. But where on earth can I get fresh not frozen beef these days?.. Living in Boston suburbs I cannot get fresh meat even at farms - they freeze meat in a slaughter house before selling.
    I am happy I found your blog - pleasant read full of warm reminiscences. Thank you.

  19. Having eaten carpaccio since 1990 in total ignorance of the origins of its name, how wonderful now to have it explained. Love the intimate story of your relationship with your grandfather and the wonderfully evocative photographs.

    1. Thanks! i'm always happy to share more than just a recipe :)