Over his 43 year tenure at the regal Gabbiano Bar at Venice’s Belmond Hotel Cipriani, located just across the lagoon from San Marco square, Walter Bolzonella is as integral to the city as its bridges and canals. Since starting as the assistant bartender in 1978, Bolzonella has served a star-studded roster of guests at Gabbiano Bar including Al Pacino, Liz Taylor, Tom Cruise, Daniel Craig, Ronald Reagan, Beyoncé and Jay-Z. It’s a list of VIPs that could unnerve any bartender, but Bolzonella offers the same service to every guest whether they just won a Grammy or are simply stopping in to sample one of his legendary Bellinis. Bolzonella prides himself on his hospitality, something that he learned from his family—his mother converted their home into an inn while he was growing up. “I am of the opinion that what makes a perfect bartender is the ability to convey your passion, and offer a welcoming atmosphere to your guests,” he says. “It’s something that, at Cipriani, I always commit myself to.”
It’s this philosophy that transforms the Gabbiano Bar into an intimate space that feels more like Bolzonella’s living room than a stuffy five-star hotel bar. His Bellini, which he learned how to make from Guiseppe Cipriani, the founder of the iconic Harry’s Bar where the drink was created, is a menu mainstay. “He made me promise that I would never change the method of preparing the Bellini cocktail: always and only fresh, ripe white peaches,” says Bolzonella.
As for his own creations, there are plenty; but his collaborations with George Clooney, whom Bolzonella befriended over the years while Clooney was in town for the Venice Film Festival, are among his favorites. The Buonanotte—a mix of lime juice, ginger, cucumber, cranberry juice, Angostura bitters and vodka—was named by Clooney himself after the two engaged in an impromptu R&D session before the Venice Film Festival in 2005. “We sold more than 100 of them in less than an hour,” Bolzonella recalls. “We had to open the kitchen, it was a messy situation. George apologized. He went behind the bar, washed his own glass, and made himself a drink. We enjoyed each other a lot.”
How did you get the job at the Gabbiano Bar?
In 1977, I used to work with a bartender whose brother worked at the Gabbiano Bar. In 1978, my colleague’s brother called him and asked if he knew anyone who’d like to be assistant to the head bartender at the Gabbiano Bar, and that the position needed to be filled quickly. I was the first person he thought of. I was 20 years old at the time. The brother called me directly and asked if I was interested in the position at the Hotel Cipriani, but I told him that I’d have to think about it because I had other plans—I didn’t really know much about the Cipriani at the time. So, I spoke with my head bartender at the hotel bar that I was working at, and explained the offer that came from Venice, but I let him know that I didn’t think I was going to accept it. Understanding the prestige of the hotel, my head bartender said ‘You must phone them straight away and tell them you accept the position!’ He called the operator and asked to be connected with the Cipriani, then asked to speak to the head bartender at the time. He said, ‘I believe you just spoke with Walter, and he has an answer to give you.’ The answer was, now, yes. And that’s how I ended up at the Gabbiano Bar.
What is your philosophy towards bartending, and where did it come from?
I was born in Noale, a charming little Medieval town not far from Venice. I spent my childhood in the countryside among the rows of vineyards and fruit trees. Guests were always welcome in my family’s home, so much so that my mother decided to open a small inn. Only handmade products were served, like wine, spirits and distilled liquors flavored with aromatic herbs and berries that we picked in the woods ourselves.
I can say, from my family, I get my passion for hospitality; which is a big part of my philosophy. It’s always hospitality first, with cocktails coming second. Even when I train new bartenders, they don’t make cocktails right away—I always teach service and hospitality, then how to mix drinks. Of course, you have to do cocktails very well, and understand the ingredients you’re mixing with. But if you don’t present the cocktails with a smile, and give the guest the hospitality that they will remember, then forget it. People come back for the hospitality, not just the cocktails. This is something that’s very important for today’s bartenders to remember.
What is one of your favorite signature serves that you’ve created during your tenure at the Gabbiano Bar?
One of my signature creations dates back to 1978, and it is called the Canaletto. It was my first week on the job, and my manager brought in a visiting journalist. I went over to the table, and the journalist immediately ordered two Bellinis—an order which I swiftly accepted. As I walked away, I realized that making the Bellini would not be possible as it was April, and we did not have any fresh peaches at the bar (this is the way I promised Giuseppe Cipriani that I’d always make the Bellini). I went back to the table and said ‘I’m so sorry that I accepted the order, but I didn’t realize that we didn’t have any peaches, so I won’t be able to make the Bellini.’ They weren’t too happy, but they understood and asked if I could make something similar.
So, I went to the bar and I had a cup of raspberries ready to be served as fruit to another guest, and I decided to use those for the drink. I blended the raspberries with some water, sugar, and creme de framboise. Then, I mixed it with some Prosecco like a Bellini. I brought these red drinks over to the table, and the journalist saw them and said ‘Oh, red, like Canaletto!’ [Canaletto was a Venetian painter known for using a traditional warm, red Venetian clay to prepare his canvases and make his colors more vibrant.] They asked ‘What is the name of this drink?’ and I said ‘Canaletto, of course!’ It’s been served ever since.
The Gabbiano Bar is known as a popular celebrity haunt. Could you share a fun story about serving a celebrity behind the bar?
One evening I was closing the bar, and it was two o’clock in the morning with only one light on in the room. A very nice lady in a beautiful dress walked into the bar alone and said ‘Oh, I’m sorry are you closing the bar?’ to which I replied, ‘Oh, it is no problem, madam. If you’d like something to drink, it’d be my pleasure.’ So, she sat down and let me know that she was just waiting for her husband who was using the bathroom, and that they’d love to have a nightcap if that was okay.
While we waited for her husband, we spoke for ten minutes—the husband was in there for about that time—and just chatted about all sorts of things; it was very personal, and normal. She was so very nice. Finally, her husband walked in, and I recognized him—it was Michael Douglas! I couldn’t believe it. Then, I looked at the woman I had been speaking with. The whole time I did not realize that she was Catherine Zeta-Jones! I said ‘Oh, my god.’ She said ‘Ah, it was so nice talking with you. I can never forget it.’ We just spoke like two normal people, and that’s not something that happens very often. They ordered some very nice Cognac for their nightcap, then they let me go to bed. It’s a really nice memory.