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Harris behind the stove at the original Mia Francesca
Even this afternoon is a major juggling act. Later he’ll stop in and check on Ethyl’s Beer and Wine Dive, his new bar with a chef-driven menu on South Racine Avenue. But first it’s time to pick out a name for his new doughnut shop, which is going in the lower level of Francesca’s Forno in Wicker Park. He pulls out his BlackBerry and scrolls through his notes. “The name I like is Glazed.”
“Oh, you can’t have Glazed,” says Robyn Jones, operations manager of Mia Francesca Corporation. “We found out it’s taken.”
He groans loudly. “But I loved Glazed. Glazed was the name. That was it.” Then, as quickly as throwing a switch, he is over his disappointment. He starts scrolling through his BlackBerry again. “OK, it’s either Sticky Fingers or Hole Lotta Love. What do we like?” (In the end, Harris settled on Glazed and Confused.) Looking across the room, he sees Tony Mantuano, the lauded chef/partner of Spiaggia, Chicago’s only four-star Italian restaurant. Mantuano has just arrived for a meeting with Harris and the other Purple Pig partners.
“Let me ask you something before we go to the meeting,” Harris says to Mantuano, handing him the spec menu. “They’re suggesting we use this new design to replace the handwritten Francesca menu. What do you think of it?”
Mantuano answers quickly. “I hate it.”
“Yeah,” says Harris. “I’m not feeling it either.”
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“Scott has always had very strong gut feelings about things,” says Michael Noone, one of the three major partners in Mia Francesca Corporation and co-owner of Danny’s Tavern, a Bucktown late-night institution. “But he also has a solid working sense of all aspects of the hospitality industry. He gets the back of the house, the front, the line, the staff. I haven’t worked with anyone else who has such a comprehensive understanding.”
Noone first met Harris at Danny’s, which he owns with Terry Alexander. (Today, Noone also is a partner in two bars, Streetside and Simone’s, and Alexander is a partner in various restaurants, including The Publican, Big Star, and The Violet Hour, a luxe cocktail bar.) It was the early 1990s, and Harris was the executive chef at Trattoria L’Angolo di Roma in Lincoln Park. After finishing the dinner shift, the whole di Roma staff would head to Danny’s. Eventually, Harris asked Carol Watson, a friend of Noone’s and Alexander’s who was hostessing at di Roma (she now owns Milk & Honey, a café/restaurant in Wicker Park), to set up a meeting. The three men met at O’Famé.
“Scott said he didn’t want to work for anyone anymore,” recalls Noone. “He wanted his own Italian restaurant, and he wanted us to partner with him—he’d run the kitchen, we’d do the bar, and his wife would work the door.” The three discussed their philosophy, Harris pushing the idea of casual, authentic Italian dining. At the time, the high-profile Italian restaurants—Sole Mio, Avanzare—were flashy and expensive, and Harris was looking for a counterpoint. Then the three studied a map of Chicago. “We picked an area—Lake Shore Drive on the east, Diversey on the south, Southport on the west, and Irving Park on the north. It seemed underserved for reasonable Italian food.” Looking for properties, the group found a shuttered place on Clark Street, just north of Belmont Avenue. The owner had closed the business, Ideal Candies, several years earlier when his wife died. Now he was ready to unload it.
The three men ponied up $50,000 each. Noone and Alexander used all the savings they had accumulated for a future bar, then borrowed from their families. “It all just clicked with us,” says Noone. “Scott’s vision and his passion were compelling enough to take the risk.” Harris had inherited some money from his father, who had been killed by a drunk driver, and he borrowed $32,000 from his 82-year-old grandmother, Bernadette. “It was all the savings she had,” remembers Harris. “Just taking it almost gave me a heart attack.”
Where the Scott Harris empire began: The original Mia Francesca, which opened in 1992, at 3311 North Clark Street in Lake ViewThey kept the tin ceiling of the candy store, turned the old soda fountain into a bar, and packed in 75 seats, putting diners elbow to elbow, which made for an ear- splitting din. The menu was value driven, with a massive bowl of linguini with porcini and portobello mushrooms costing $8; tiramisù, $3; and a glass of wine, $4. After opening in February 1992, the place quickly found an adoring audience. Within three months, the two-hour wait for tables was spilling out the door and down the sidewalk. After just six months, Harris had paid his grandmother—who came to the restaurant carrying her own cushion for the wooden chairs—back in full. Noone remembers it as “a magical time in all of our lives,” with the partners working hard together and seeing their dream become a hot, trendy reality. Others remember Harris having meltdowns over the line in back, demanding perfection in the food leaving the kitchen. “I loved it and also I was a wreck,” says Harris. “It was my first place, my dream restaurant, and I was worried all the time that it wasn’t going to succeed.” He recalls waiting for the first big review, by the Trib’s Vettel, which came out in September. “I was walking out of our home in Oak Park at dawn, wearing a bathrobe, looking for the papers to be delivered. Finally, I found one, and the first sentence of the review Phil Vettel wrote was, ‘Why would anyone go to this place?’ It was like a knife in my heart.”
Actually, that wasn’t the first sentence in Vettel’s review. But he did write, in the second paragraph, that while Mia Francesca was a “neighborhood gem,” it was “popular beyond reason. As a result, the restaurant is so crowded, so noisy, so tough a ticket that dining here becomes a test of patience, endurance and will.” But the customers didn’t seem to mind. The crowds just became part of the mise en scène. By the end of 1992, the dining editors at Chicago magazine gave Mia Francesca their Rookie of the Year award. Two years later, Harris, Noone, and Alexander opened La Sorella di Francesca in Naperville, and a winning formula began to blanket the city and the suburbs.
According to Noone, one of the primary reasons for the current restructuring of the Mia Francesca Corporation, which is still owned by the three main partners, plus 12 minority partners, is that all the restaurants were opened individually. “Now we’ve got 21 different entities,” he says. “We need to roll them into one. Financial institutions don’t like to lend to small start-up restaurants, so in order for us to expand nationally, we need to show our strength.” Key to a successful expansion, says Noone, is breeding the Francesca culture from the top down in every location. “Obviously, Scott can’t be everywhere anymore. So the attitude will have to come from the top, and you have to have all your servers, your bartenders, and your managers emulate Scott and his values.” The goal is to create Harris clones who can bring the same attention to detail, passion for food, and high standards for service to every location in every state.
As for compromise, Noone says the partners faced an early challenge of bowing to local customs. “At Mia Francesca, we used short, nonstemmed glasses as wineglasses, just like they do in Italian trattorias. No one else was doing it at the time, but it was authentic. Then we opened in Naperville, and no one there liked them. Customers kept asking for stemware, and eventually people even started bringing their own stemware to the restaurant. So we decided, OK, we’ll provide stemware. But there are some things you can’t compromise on, either. We know that. Or you just lose what you had that was so special in the beginning.”
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Photography: (Harris) Courtesy of the Harris family; (Mia Francesca) Kim Thornton