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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Scott Harris in high school
Harris, pictured at 17, worked as a fry cook in high school and soon after graduating realized he wanted to be a chef.
Scott Harris grew up on Chicago’s South Side and in Mokena, the oldest of five children. His father was a third-generation carpenter, and his mother was a Harris, pictured at 17, worked as a fry cook in high school and soon after graduating realized he wanted to be a chefzwaitress. Starting after sixth grade, Harris worked every summer with his dad on construction jobs. “I hated it. Bricklaying, cement work, carrying wood. I knew it wasn’t the life for me.” When he was 12, he started tagging along with his mother to her job at Fox’s Pub in Orland Park. “I looked older than I was, so I got a job washing dishes.” After a few months, the chef took Harris under his wing. “His name was Stretch, and he was a 400-pound bearded hippie, but he took an interest in me and started showing me things in the kitchen.” The food at home wasn’t great—except for Thanksgiving and his mother’s roasted chicken—but he quickly became intrigued with cooking.

From there, Harris moved to Jeremiah Sweeney’s on the South Side, manning the fry station at the age of 17. “I loved it. You know, restaurant people are a different breed.” When he graduated from high school, he tried to get a job at ComEd, but that didn’t work out. So he decided to go to Joliet Junior College. A guidance counselor talked to him briefly and then walked him over to the culinary department, saying, “This is where you belong.” “I wish I could find that guy today,” says Harris. “I owe him.”

After graduation, he moved downtown and found work at The 95th. Then he started hopping from job to job, choosing experience over stability and high wages. He relocated to St. Croix for two years, cooking at a resort, and then worked at Ambria, Avanzare, Cityscape, Chez Jenny. He was French trained, but when he had a chance to be the chef at Trattoria L’Angolo di Roma, at Belden Avenue and Clark Street, he jumped at it. “It opened the world to me. I fell in love with the whole concept of Italian cooking—pasta, fish, a few ingredients, fresh flavors,” Harris says.

Related:

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

He met Francesca Pignataro through his best friend, who had married her sister. On their second date, she told him she didn’t want to have children, so if he did, they should just remain friends. “At the time, I could barely pay my own bills,” recalls Harris. “I was driving my late dad’s ’86 Mercury Marquis—how would I ever have the money to have kids?” They married in 1990. By the time Harris was 34, he had opened three Francesca restaurants, and money was no longer an issue. “I told her, ‘I think I’ve changed my mind about kids.’ And she said, ‘I haven’t.’” They divorced in 2000, although she remains active with the Mia Francesca Corporation.

A baptism brought Harris and Dana Chrisos together. He was the godfather of twins, and she was a young Chicago native visiting from her new home in California. She worked in the hospitality industry for Hyatt Hotels, and she had two kids, a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. Over the years, Harris and Chrisos began a long-distance relationship, and on New Year’s Eve 2009, they married. Jimmy Bannos Sr. was the best man—Harris borrowed his ring for the courtroom ceremony, after which the wedding party had lunch at RL. Later that evening, there was a celebration at The Purple Pig.

“I’ve never been happier,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, the long-distance thing will never work out.’ But it truly does make the heart grow fonder.”

* * *

It’s not always easy to get a seat at Davanti Enoteca, the Little Italy gem that Chicago named Harris’s “masterpiece.” But when you walk in with the boss and his wife, it helps. “We’re fresh from the gym,” says Harris after asking the waiter to send “a bunch of everything” to the table. “I’ve got a trainer now, and he’s killing me.” The trainer is, in large part, the influence of Dana Chrisos-Harris, 45, a tall, slender brunette with an easygoing manner. She has also influenced Harris’s interest in expanding westward. Her daughter, Sophia, now 17, and son, Andrew, 15, currently live in San Diego, and Harris, through his commuter marriage, has fallen in love with the city. “I’m ecstatic that Scott is going to have some restaurants in San Diego,” Chrisos-Harris says. “And the kids are very happy, too.”

“Hey, do you have that spec menu—the one they want me to use when we go national?” Harris asks her. “I want to show it to somebody here.”

“I tore it up. It may be in the back seat of your car now.”

Scott Harris and his wife, Dana Chrisos
In 2009 Harris embarked on a commuter marriage with Dana Chrisos of San Diego, where he will open two restaurants later this year.
Decision made. “It wasn’t for me,” says Harris. A few moments later, he adds, “Dana is pushing me to change. She’s pushing me to sell early so we can have some leisure time together.”

“I want him to go where his passions take him,” she says. “But I don’t like to see him stressed.”

“I want to enjoy my fifties,” he says. “So I have a five-year exit strategy and a ten-year exit strategy, and we’ll see what happens.”

But can a guy who is perpetually in motion ever slow down?

“Sure I can. Of course. I just want to do a few more things.” Then Harris launches into his ideas for Chicago’s Little Italy, how he has developed a ten-year plan for Taylor Street that includes “a killer bakery that does wedding cakes, a Sicilian fish house, a gelato and bombolini shop, a meatball shop with a dozen different types of meatballs, and, finally, another restaurant.” This one would be called Mia Modo, meaning “my way.” “I would just feed you what I wanted to, no menu. Just a little 50-seat place that gives new meaning to the term ‘chef-driven.’” He would also like historical-looking signs on Morgan Street and Ashland Avenue, officially naming the area Little Italy. He would have farmers’ markets there, and—if he had his way—he’d tear up Taylor Street and repave it with cobblestones. “OK, I may not get the cobblestones,” he admits.

When I mention that this doesn’t sound like a man preparing to enjoy his leisure time, Harris gives a little shrug. “Scott has to be Scott,” says Chrisos-Harris. “If he changes too much, then he isn’t Scott.”

The same could be said about Harris’s restaurants as he begins a national expansion. “I want to go to the next level, but we’re not talking Olive Garden here,” he says. “I don’t know everything, but I do know how to do a great restaurant, a restaurant people love. And I’m just trying to share the love.”

 

Photograph: Courtesy of the Harris Family

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3 years ago
Posted by Sothea Prum

Dear Scott Harris,

I am one of the person in Cambodia who has view your website. I am so happy I want to be the same as you. If you could come to my country and open a restaurant I am so happy to be your partner. I wish you could see my common.

God Bless you thank

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