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Sweeter Times for La Dolce Vita

As a great-grandson of auto pioneer Henry Ford (Model T, the assembly line), son of former Manhattan restaurateur Gianni Uzielli (Uzie's, Giancarlo's), and a filmmaker yourself (The Wedding Planner, The Proposition) with a yearning for old Hollywood, where do you find a business challenge that would make the family proud?

If you're entrepreneur Alessandro Uzielli, you revive the swank former Rat Pack haunt, La Dolce Vita, and turn it into a hot spot where old Hollywood dines with the silver screen's new generation in classic red leather booths.

RECREATED AMBIENCE. A favorite of Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster, La Dolce Vita had fed U.S. Presidents dating back to John F. Kennedy. But last year, when Uzielli and his partner, David Simmer, purchased the beloved 38-year-old Italian eatery, it was better known in the past tense. A mere shadow of its former glory, La Dolce Vita's clientele was dangerously close to B-list. And the Beverly Hills restaurant was about to be sold into obscurity, going the way of other Hollywood institutions like Chasen's and the Brown Derby.

Uzielli, who's also a senior adviser in the global branded-entertainment division of the Ford Motor (F), has been able to recreate the ambience of yesteryear while restoring La Dolce Vita to a modern luster. Once again, reservations are strongly recommended.

BusinessWeek Online reporter Stacy Perman recently spoke to Uzielli about remaking a hallowed name, building on an established brand, and what running a restaurant, making movies, and the auto industry have in common. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Q: Why did you take over what many viewed as a dying restaurant?

A: My partner in film and I were looking for a bar to open, and we tried to find something with a New York feeling. But nothing fit. La Dolce Vita, which I had loved, seemed to capture the history of this town, the film business, and Hollywood history. Hollywood, New York, and Washington, D.C., really hold all of the history in this country, and to let it slip away is a crime. I saw us preserving piece of Hollywood history.

Q: How do you maintain that unique charm today?

A: It's the feeling of the place, the ambience. We kept the staff, the maître d', and the recipes are all the same. When you walked in, it wasn't like walking in a hip new restaurant. It was an extension of a living room. There are only 16 tables. There's a homey, comfortable feel. I experienced it as a customer, and I wanted to keep it. I wanted people to be able to hear themselves talk, sit for hours, and not feel like they were being rushed out because we needed the table.

Q: But you had to bring the business into the modern era, too.

A: We completely updated the kitchen, which hadn't been touched in almost 40 years. And we restored the brick walls and carpeting, which were falling apart. We put in a wireless network and phone jacks in every booth, so we could do business there during the day when we're closed.

Q: Having successfully revived the restaurant, is it tempting to try replicating that formula elsewhere?

A: You can't take a brand where it's not supposed to go. To try and grow La Dolce would be wrong. We're confined by the four walls of real estate, but inside it we're unlimited to the true brand message, and what it is. There are no windows and one door. Once the door closes, you have really left behind what is on the other side of the door. Not a lot places do that, and as much as I can, I want to maintain that.

If the place next door became available I might expand, but I want it to feel like nothing changed. Our clientele is concerned that nothing changes. They ask if we still make the osso buco the way it was done. I thought about opening another La Dolce's and jarring the sauces. But the more I get to know the place, the customers, and how it works, it's a standalone. It's perfect for the place and time and customer.

Q: How did you attract a new, hipper crowd without alienating the restaurant's core group of older patrons?

A: We retained the wait staff that had been here for years and kept the entire menu and the décor the same. The old clientele like Bob Newhart, Tina Sinatra, and Don Rickles had been going there for 20 years before we bought it, but they had given up on the place. We had inherited the restaurant's mailing list. And some of these people I knew through my family. I wrote personal letters to them. There was a little bit of a leap of faith, but once they walked through the door, they stayed.

Then we got a review in the Los Angeles Times nine months after opening. It perfectly typified what we were. Then we got clientele that didn't know we existed. We also went to all the hotel concierges and offered them dinner on us. They took us up and have been great about sending people here. We treat our customers well. We send them Christmas cards.

Now on any given night you will see Betsey Bloomingdale, Dominick Dunne, Sumner Redstone or [producer] John Goldwyn, [fashion designer] Tom Ford, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, or George Clooney

Q: How does developing and maintaining a brand in the auto industry differ from the restaurant world?

A: I grew up in the Ford Motor Company. And I saw that a brand has to be nurtured and looked after so much further then just selling cars or a meal. It's about the entire emotional experience from the moment you see an ad to the moment you drive off the lot. It's the same with a restaurant -- what you're trying to sell your customers the minute they walk in the door to the minute they leave. At the end of the day it's about pleasing your customer.

Everybody is looking for the same thing when they go out to eat. They want to be treated well. They want an experience. It's like the entertainment business: You're stepping through the door, and you want to get your money's worth. Here, everybody is treated like a celebrity regardless of who they are. It's not that far off from producing a movie. Every night is a premiere. Whether you spend $10 on tickets or $50 on a meal, people expect to be entertained.

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