Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Dec. 20
Mamma Mia! Francesca's Moving In
Little Italy Update: Zagarella, the long-time Italian restaurant at 1655 India Street, r.i.p., is a mess. That’s because a big gent from Chicago has taken the property over, ripped out its bowels, and is turning it into another Mia Francesca. Okay, nobody’s heard of it here. But watch out. During the last two decades, Scott Harris has opened 27 restaurants, 22 of them Mia Francesas (named after his ex-wife). None have closed. Now he’s starting off his invasion of California right here in Little Italy. Plus he’s got six new ones on the drawing boards around the country, plus six “affiliates.” Dang. So what’s the secret of his success?
I walk into this wood and concrete cavern Friday to find out. There’s this clump of people sitting round on chairs next to the rubble of the back patio, yakking away. Turns out it’s an interview with Riviera Magazine. Scott’s the big guy in shorts who you’da thought was the carpenter. “Actually, my dad was a carpenter, but I didn’t like carpentering,” he says. “My mom was a waitress, so I went and washed dishes at her place. I was 14.”
A lot’s happened since. He isn’t quite fifty, and the recession has rolled off his back like the proverbial water on the duck. It’s the ideal time to expand, he says. “In these times, the deals are better. The deals we’re getting are hard to turn down.” ’Course, he’s a bit worried to come in to ’Diego, and Little Italy, with the “Chicago” label. He knows how California “invaders” have been run outa town back in the Windy City. “But I do have my aces in the hole,” he says. “My Italian guy is coming momentarily.” Everyone laughs. So: His secret? General agreement seems that he succeeded by doing high-end northern Italian for “casual” prices. Meaning, maybe fifteen bucks for a main? Bottom line, the Chicago Tribune said last year, is “large portions and relatively modest prices.” Whatever, it must work. In 2009 Mia Francesca’s grossed $42 million. I ask if he’d come stand by a construction ladder out back for a picture. “Beside it, not under it,” he says. “Not on Friday 13th."
Opening: Probably around mid July.