CELEBRITIES LOVE WHILING away evenings at Gabbiano Bar, inside Cipriani, A Belmond Hotel, in Venice, Italy. Although it’s mere minutes from there to the animated tourist hub of St. Mark’s Square, its location on the leafy Venetian Lagoon island of Giudecca imbues the bar with a hushed otherworldliness, the cocooning elegance of another era. But A-listers aren’t the only ones to sink into those rounded fuchsia and sage chairs while clamoring for a spritz. For more than four decades, many visitors took a boat over to Cipriani just to sip a cocktail made and served by legendary barman Walter Bolzonella. So loyalists were saddened to hear that the mythic, hospitable Bolzonella, a Gabbiano Bar fixture since 1978, retired earlier this year. Luckily his successor is equally charismatic.
Riccardo Semeria, Cipriani’s newly installed bar manager, is no stranger to the luxury hotel realm. He’s worked at such esteemed London establishments as The Fumoir bar at Claridge’s and most recently as manager of the martini-trolley-famous Connaught Bar at The Connaught hotel. “I recognize quite a few guests here from The Connaught,” he laughs. Semeria admits, “It’s a big responsibility to take over the bar after someone like Walter has been here for over 40 years, but I made a few promises to him, including that our Bellini will never use anything other than fresh, white peaches.”
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That frosty two-ingredient Bellini, the romantic classic with a coral, sunset hue fusing peach puree and Prosecco, is as much an emblem of Venice as the city’s abundance of gliding gondolas. It’s also the hotel’s calling card. Unlike so many other murky cocktail origin stories, the Bellini’s is well known. Giuseppe Cipriani created it at another Venice institution, Harry’s Bar, in 1948. Then, a decade later, he decided to open a hotel in his name, a splendorous post-war playground for the monied. There, the Bellini fast became the most sought-after concoction among those throngs of guests lounging poolside just beyond Gabbiano Bar. To this day, the Bellini is only whipped up when juicy peaches are available, from around the end of May through September, although more season-appropriate versions with strawberries and raspberries, for example, are just as satiating.
Semeria continues to prepare the Bellini according to the original recipe, albeit with one modern flourish: an entrancing tableside presentation. He has also taken the menu in a more sustainable direction. For instance, he says, “We used to throw away the peach stones, but they are tasty and give a lot of flavor and color, so we infuse the gin with them instead of throwing it away.”
The result of this infusion — that bright, fruity gin — is the star of what is bound to become one of Semeria’s signatures, the cobbler-style Casanova’s Cup. An ode to the name of the Cipriani garden (where the real Casanova was rumored to hide after seducing the ladies residing at the nearby Zitelle convent), it is paired with vermouth Ambrato, the herb-laden Bitter Bianco, and basil from Semeria’s hometown of Sanremo, in the Liguria region. Finally, it’s capped off with a dash of soda water and an edible flower garnish. Today, Semeria is a frequent visitor to the Casanova Garden, constantly reaching for the likes of fresh mint and fennel. With fall around the bend, Semeria will embrace a new roster of ingredients — like sweet fig and spicy cinnamon.
Semeria’s passion for bars took root at an early age. “My parents owned a little coffee shop, and when I was 8 years old, I started to make espresso there,” he recalls. “I always found the atmosphere fascinating, and meeting with all the people and interacting with them was my favorite part. It made me want to travel, to learn English and see new places.” So, Semeria did exactly that, deepening his hospitality experience on cruise ships and in cities like Sydney, Melbourne, and, of course, London. “I’ve spent the last 20 years traveling, and I like to bring back all the different ingredients and inspirations that I see,” says Semeria.
For anyone who’s had the pleasure of Bolzonella stirring them a drink at Gabbiano Bar, or who simply wants to dive into Cipriani’s liquid history, some of Bolzonella’s libations remain on the list. That includes the effervescent and refreshingly spiced 421 Venezia Mia, starring Malvasia wine steeped with blackberries and a slew of Asian peppercorns mixed with Select, maraschino liqueur, orange bitters, and Prosecco. “We want to always preserve Walter’s legacy,” says Semeria.
The Figgy Cobbler Recipe
- 30 ml Armagnac or Cognac
- 1 fresh fig
- 1 tsp cinnamon sugar (1 tsp of cinnamon mixed with 5 tsp of caster sugar)
- Cut the fresh fig into four equal parts. Place the four parts of the fig in a wine glass, goblet, or highball.
- Add the cinnamon sugar to the glass and muddle with the fig.
- Pour in the Armagnac or Cognac. Add cracked ice. Stir with a barspoon.
- Top up with Champagne. Garnish with fresh fig.
Alia Akkam Writer
Originally from New York, Alia Akkam is a writer living in Budapest who covers design, drinks, food, and travel. Her book on hotel bars, published in 2020, will be followed up by one on gin cocktails this year.
Kata Geibl Photographer
Kata Geibl is a photographer living and working between Budapest and The Hague. Her work is mainly focused on global issues, capitalism, the Anthropocene, and the ambiguities of the photographic medium. She has exhibited worldwide in solo and group shows. Her first monograph was published by Void in November 2021.