Issue: Discover Hollywood Summer 2019
If you’ve ever enjoyed pizza in Los Angeles, you have Carmen Miceli to thank. Before Miceli opened his namesake restaurant in 1949, it was rare to find pizza on a menu in L.A, but Miceli’s made the dish a main attraction. Now, Miceli’s is celebrating its 70th anniversary and it remains a Hollywood favorite for the famous, families and first dates.
Like many others, Carmen Miceli moved to L.A. to escape the cold. Born in Chicago to Sicilian immigrant parents, the World War II vet came out west in 1946 and started working at restaurants like Ciro’s and Rand’s Roundup. After he met his wife Sylvia, they decided to open a restaurant using recipes from the old country and the old neighborhood. In 1949, Miceli’s opened a small storefront on Las Palmas Avenue in Hollywood and though the restaurant has expanded quite a bit since its opening day, it’s still on the same spot where it all began. Carmen died in 2017, but his sons Frank and Joe have run the restaurant and the Universal City sister restaurant since the mid-1980s. The brothers have worked in nearly every position at the restaurant, so they know how important every detail of the restaurant.
Carmen and Sylvia Miceli in 1949
Admittedly, pizza had been around L.A. for a decade before Miceli’s opened up. In 1939, Pasquale D’Amore opened Casa D’Amore on Cahuenga Boulevard and served pizza and other Italian dishes to fellow New York transplants like Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio. But it was Miceli’s that really made the dish popular, putting it front and center on the menu and in the restaurant’s front window. Miceli’s pizza man literally stood in the window tossing pizza dough high into the sky, drawing customers to the young restaurant.
The restaurant is a well preserved of Hollywood’s golden age. According to Frank Micelli, “90% of this restaurant has looked like this since 1962.” If Frank Sinatra or any other golden age Hollywood star somehow wandered somehow time traveled to Miceli’s circa 2019, they wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary other than the computer system and the prices. In addition to being a historic restaurant itself, over the years Miceli’s has helped preserve some of the neighborhood’s history. When the Pig ‘n Whistle restaurant next to the Egyptian Theater closed in the 1950s after two decades of operation, Miceli’s bought all the restaurant’s hand carved booths. The historic booths are easily recognizable by the Pig’n Whistle’s logo, a dancing pig playing the flute. Wood from the Pig’n Whistle booths were also used to make the restaurant’s back bar and help decorate beams of the ceiling. A new Pig’n Whistle restaurant opened in that same space as the old restaurant in 2001, and ironically enough was a fast food pizza joint just prior to that.
When a restaurant’s served Hollywood for seven decades, it’s going to have some Hollywood stories, and Miceli’s is no exception. Movies and TV shows like Knocked Up and
Dexter have filmed at Micel’s and the restaurant has seen many famous faces sit down to dinner, everyone from the Beatles to Jim Carrey. Presidents Kennedy and Nixon both dined there before they were elected. Oftentimes, the stars are just part of the Miceli’s family. “Ernest Borgnine was one of the nicest guys to walk through the door and Pauley Perrette from
NCIS, when she walks in, she goes into the back and says hi to the dishwashers. Jon Stamos will walk into the kitchen,” says Frank Miceli. However, there are times when the staff still gets starstruck. “One time [legendary Brazilian soccer player] Pele came into our Universal City store and we told the customers ‘The kitchen will be closed for the next 30 minutes, the cooks are all taking to Pele,” says Miceli.
However, Miceli’s biggest contribution to entertainment history came via the 1956 I Love Lucy episode “Visitor From Italy.” Accoridng to Miceli, “The producers or writers of the show were walking to get lunch at Musso’s and as they walked by Miceli’s they saw the pizza man in the window flipping pizzas and they said ‘I bet Lucy could do that.” At the time, Miceli’s had a location in Beverly Hills near Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s home. So, prior to filming the episode, Ball worked two nights at the Beverly Hills location learning how to flip pizzas. That way, she could learn how to do it perfectly so she could do it perfectly wrong in front of the cameras. Carmen Miceli wouldn’t allow the press or anyone else to take photos of Ball in the kitchen, telling everyone to just let Ball work.
“Our pizza chef at the time was a gentleman named Aldo Formica and Aldo’s the guy in the show,” says Miceli. Just as he helped teach Ball how to toss pizzas in real life, Formica appeared in the episode as a pizza chef who attempts to show Lucy Ricardo how to toss pizza with hilariously disastrous results. While Formica never caught the acting bug, making only one other onscreen appearance as a pizza twirler in a 1975 episode of Maude; he did go on to open his own restaurant, Aldolino’s Italian Restaurant in Asuza. The menus at Aldolino’s feature a photo from the episode of Formica spinning a pizza as Ball looks on in astonishment.
Popular Pianist Brian O'Rourke is part musician, part magican
Photo by Steve Meeks
Miceli’s has a proud musical tradition. For a long time, it hosted jazz nights that featured performers like Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band and singer Sarah Vaughn; but it’s most famous for its singing waitstaff. This tradition began with a dishwasher in the 1950s who had a great voice and sang along with the restaurant’s jukebox. Eventually, it became a regular thing that he would come to the front of house to sing along to certain songs on the jukebox. Over time, other staffers would start singing along to the pop, jazz and opera songs in the jukebox and when Miceli’s expanded enough to have room for a piano, servers sang along to that. “When we opened our Universal City Miceli’s in 1980, we put a little blurb out saying ‘Miceli’s singing server audition’ and we had 250 people audition,” says Miceli. With the exception of a couple waiters who’ve been there since the 1970s, now every server at both restaurants will periodically stop serving to perform with the piano player during dinner.
At present, there are no big plans for the 70th anniversary, but Frank Miceli says that just opening up in the morning is celebration enough. “A lot of restaurants close after one or two years,” says Miceli, adding “that we have survived this long is a testament to the fact that people keep coming back. Maybe testament’s the wrong word, it’s more just how do you say thank you for that?”