Scott Harris: the Most Underrated Restaurateur in the Country?

LET THEM EAT CARPACCIO: On the back of Mia Francesca, the modest Italian restaurant in Lake View, Harris has built a dining empire now on the brink of expanding to both coasts.

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From left: Jimmy Bannos Sr., Michael Noone, Scott Harris
(From left) Jimmy Bannos Sr. and Michael Noone with Harris at a restaurant awards event earlier this year
 

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MORE ON SOME OF HARRIS’S RESTAURANTS
Davanti Enoteca »
The Purple Pig »
Ethyl’s Beer & Wine Dive »

It is dim and quiet in DiSotto Enoteca—the place doesn’t open to customers for hours—so it’s a perfect spot for a Purple Pig partners’ meeting. The Purple Pig, on Michigan Avenue at Illinois Street, opened last year with the slogan “Cheese, Swine & Wine.” It specializes in small plates of Mediterranean cuisine and offers a vast selection of Greek wines and grappa. Bon Appétit named it one of the ten best new restaurants of the year—and it was the only Chicago place on the list. A possibility the partners are considering: opening Purple Pigs in other cities and states.

Harris sits at the head of the table, with his longtime friend Jimmy Bannos Sr. on his right, then Tony Mantuano and, across the table, Jimmy Bannos Jr., the Pig’s chef. It is a gathering of equals, although Harris is the one, nominally at least, who runs the meeting. There is a printed agenda—beverage team restructure, public relations, and procedure updates—but the conversation quickly veers off course. “We’re thinking we want to open a speakeasy kind of place downtown,” Harris tells Mantuano.

Bannos Jr. jumps in. “Big, cheap, late hours, totally hidden. No sign, just an arrow pointing to the place.”

“Who’s going to find it? No one will know the place exists,” says Mantuano.

Harris describes how to get to an unmarked bar in Chinatown, adding, “On the outside, you’d never know what was going on. But inside, the staff is wearing lab coats and serving drinks in test tubes.”

“I’m against that,” says Mantuano.

“No, we’re not doing that.” Harris waves his hand in dismissal. “We’re going totally old school here—big old leather booths, lots of atmosphere.”

“We’d be serving cheap drinks like Rolling Rock,” says Bannos Jr. “Go total old style.”

“Old school, not old style,” says Harris.

The idea of opening a companion place to The Purple Pig is brought up. Harris wants white wine, Champagne, and oysters; the Bannoses want it to be Italian.

“This isn’t the time for an Italian restaurant,” says Mantuano. “At the most, maybe a spaghetti bar.”

“Are you crazy?” says Bannos Sr. “There’s a huge market in this town for Italian food. Huge.”

“No, no,” counters Harris. “Something light and white, something for the ladies. The big question is, do we go with investors or bankers?” That is left unanswered. Shifting gears effortlessly, Harris says, “Let’s go to Europe for some research. Four days of restaurant tastings.” Everyone pulls out a BlackBerry, and dates are tossed around. Finally, there is agreement on a trip to London, Paris, and Madrid. Then Harris announces, “Look, I’m restructuring everything financially. We’re streamlining the bookkeeping, we’re putting things in a more orderly fashion.”

“What does this mean?” says Bannos Sr. “If I want to write myself a check for $20,000, I’m not going to jump through hoops.”

“No, no, no,” says Harris. “This is going to be good for all of us. If we want to move forward, expand our ideas, open new places in different cities, then we have to get everything in order.”

“I don’t like it,” says Bannos Sr., who operates in a loose and casual fashion. “Paperwork, nitty-gritty little details—I can’t stand it.”

“You’ll love it,” says Harris.

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Photograph: Courtesy of the Harris family

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