The restaurant business is mercurial, but this is ridiculous: One of the best-looking, most expensive and most relentlessly popular Italian restaurants in New York, Harry Cipriani's on Fifth Avenue--a New York outpost of famed Harry's Bar in Venice--disappeared between lunch and dinner a couple of weeks ago and was replaced the same day by another Italian place bearing the name of another well-known Italian restaurateur.
The quick change, which made the front page of the New York Times and was the talk of the Manhattan restaurant community for simply days and days, was the result of a dispute between Harry (or rather Arrigo) Cipriani himself and the owners of the Sherry Netherland Hotel, in which his restaurant had been situated. Those owners, English-based Trusthouse Forte, were apparently under the impression that, in opening his place at their hotel, Cipriani had agreed not to open any other restaurants in New York without Trusthouse involvement.
Cipriani doesn't remember it that way--and so, this summer, he started a place called Bellini on the West Side and announced plans for yet a third New York place, to be called Carpaccio (after the paper-thin raw beef dish that Harry's Bar first popularized and quite probably invented). The Trusthouse folks waited until Cipriani was back in Italy and then moved into the restaurant, acid-washing the Cipriani name off the front door and packing away the Cipriani glassware and menus.
When the dust had cleared, Ernesto Tino Fontana--who owns 10 or 12 restaurants in the northern Italian city of Bergamo, runs an important cooking school and is said to have opened the first Italian restaurant in the Soviet Union--had moved his own crew in and put his own name up on the door in time for dinner. \o7 Sic transit \f7 and all that. First reports from Tino Fontana, incidentally, are mixed--but the food is definitely more contemporary, more \o7 nuova\f7 , than the Cipriani brand of Veneziana.
In an ad he took out later in the week, Harry Cipriani labeled the event "Death in the Afternoon." He announced the "sudden demise" of the restaurant and said that "its loving spirit and soul will remain forever at its brother restaurant . . . Bellini."
Meanwhile, Bellini itself was the site of strange goings-on. When New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller turned up for lunch the following week, he was told by Harry Cipriani's son Giuseppe that "the cooks will not cook for you." When Miller asked Cipriani if he, as owner, could not order them to cook, Cipriani replied, "All I could do would be to fire them." Harry Cipriani, it should be noted, was not in the dining room at the time.
ON THE LINE: Taking a cue from an editorial in Nation's Restaurant News, an important trade publication, I wrote briefly in this space not long ago about those credit-card forms used in some restaurants on which separate blanks are left for both waiter's and captain's tips.
As I noted, I think such forms are unfair to the customer--and I would like to see them done away with. New York-based restaurateur Warner LeRoy, though, has written the publication to point out that "some union contracts and most state laws prohibit management's involvement in tip splitting"--and that since most customers believe tips \o7 are\f7 split, "the result is the waiter gets everything and the captain gets nothing." That's a good point--but the obvious answer is for waiters and captains to work out splitting procedures among themselves, without management's intervention.
WHAT'S UP: You've got your choice of wine dinners tomorrow evening: Four courses and wines from Guenoc Vineyards at Gourmet Gourmet in Tarzana ($35 per person) or five courses and the vintages of Sam J. Sebastiani (now off on his own) at Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach ($40 a head). . . . Le Normandie in Thousand Oaks offers a complimentary bottle of Napa Valley Chardonnay to patrons this Tuesday and Wednesday in celebration of the establishment's 10th anniversary. . . . Prego in Beverly Hills holds its fourth annual "Sagra del Vino" Italian-style grape harvest festival next Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Food, wine and music are featured. Tickets are $40 and the event will benefit UCLA Medical Center's Child Development Program. (Children under 10 will be admitted free.) . . . And on Oct. 5 at 6:30 p.m., the Santa Monica Arts Foundation presents "Eat for Art II" at the carrousel on the Santa Monica Pier. Food will be provided by Trattoria Angeli, Camelions, Gilliland's, Knoll's Black Forest Inn, Les Anges, Michael's, Ocean Ave. Seafood, Rebecca's, Rockenwagner, Sabroso, Scratch, 72 Market St., Wave and West Beach Cafe. Tickets are $100; information, (213) 458-8350.