World’s Oldest Pizzeria Makes Its Hollywood Debut
Francesco Zimone openly admits that he was extremely naïve when he decided to open a 6,000-square-foot restaurant in Hollywood, California.
“If I would have listened to one of the four or five hundred people who said I was crazy and turned me down, I wouldn’t be here today,” says Zimone, owner and designer of L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, which opened this past May in Hollywood. “I sold absolutely everything I had; I’ve never been so broke or so happy in my life.”
Zimone, whose previous work involved real estate, design, and food importation, grew up in Italy, eating at the historic L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. The pizzeria is the world’s first recorded pizzeria, established in 1870 in Naples, Italy, and serves just two types of pizza to crowds of hungry locals and tourists. The Neapolitan pizzeria was made famous in the Hollywood blockbuster “Eat Pray Love” (based on a book of the same name) when actress Julia Roberts proclaims, “I’m in love; I’m having a relationship with my pizza,” while eating a Margherita pizza at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples.
After moving to Los Angeles 16 years ago, Zimone continued to visit Naples, always including a stop at the historic pizzeria. And, after numerous attempts to ask the owners if they would ever consider opening a location in the US, Zimone acquired the license to use the famous pizzeria’s name in the United States.
Zimone is quick to point out that the Hollywood restaurant is a separate US operation. Zimone says that after living in California for 16 years, he’s a Californian by default and by adoption.
“This is not built as a franchise,” says Zimone. “The Hollywood location of L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is a privately-owned brand that has its own roots here in the US. We’re bringing my Italian culture and mixing it with the fact that we live in LA, where there’s a completely different approach to food.”
Blending Old and New
At the Naples location of da Michele, the menu is just two items long—marinara pizza (marinara sauce and garlic) and Margherita pizza (marinara, mozzarella, and basil).
And while some may feel the urge to compare the Hollywood location to the original in Naples, Zimone says he didn’t feel pressured to be exactly like the original. “My only pressure was on quality,” says Zimone. “I knew that offering only two pizzas like the original location would be suicide. It could have been cool for the first two weeks, but who’s going to show up for two items in Los Angeles?”
Instead, Zimone says he doesn’t want his restaurant to be classified as a pizzeria. “Most of the time, hearing someone call something a pizza place, you don’t want to spend time or relax,” he says.
Zimone wants the opposite for his restaurant, which is designed to be warm, welcoming and relaxing. Located in the former home of Café des Artistes near Sunset and Highland in Hollywood, Zimone wanted to create a feeling of welcoming people into his home.
“Rather than having an operation that would serve as a point of access where you can have food, what we’re doing is providing customers with an experience that includes food,” says Zimone. “People are starving for connection; I think that’s what’s missing in society right now.”
In an effort to boost connection, the project was built as a house, with see-through walls so that guests can see everything, according to Zimone. “In the front, there’s a fireplace and three couches that totally remind you of a house,” says Zimone. “There’s a large door that brings you out to an enclosed patio that looks like the courtyard of an old building in Italy.” From the garden, guests look in on the pizza kitchen.
Six pizzas are featured on the Hollywood da Michele menu, including marinara, Margherita, montanara (fried and baked pizza), and a pizza topped with truffles. Appetizers range from arancini to meatballs and octopus.
“We sell 45 percent to 50 percent pizza and the rest is other food from our menu,” says Zimone.
Other menu standouts, according to Zimone, include the spaghetti pomodoro, spaghetti alla nerano (spaghetti with zucchini), and the pappardelle alla Genovese (pappardelle pasta with short ribs). “The meat is cooked for three days in onions; it’s something that grandpa and grandma would cook on a Sunday,” says Zimone of the pappardelle alla Genovese. “We sell almost as much pappardelle alla Genovese as pizza.”
The restaurant will also begin serving breakfast on October 1, which will include Italian specialties, like bombolone, pastries made in house and savory offerings, such as, risotto with eggs and truffles.
An Invested Staff
Napoli-trained head pizzaiolo Michele Rubini and executive chef Antonio Giordano run the dual kitchens while hospitality guru Marino Monferrato was brought on this month as the restaurant’s director of operations.
Zimone says he consulted with several chefs when designing the kitchen at da Michele. “I spoke to three chefs who have 15 to 20 years of experience and brought them to the restaurant when we were building it,” says Zimone. “When the back of your house can work in a smooth way, everyone can work more economically and with less stress.”
“I have a bunch of professionals that are fantastic,” says Zimone. “Five months after opening, we’re starting to become more methodical and mathematical in looking into the numbers and making sure that the operation is a well-crafted one.”
Meanwhile, Zimone says his life has changed completely since he opened the restaurant. “I think I was born to do this; I never thought I could achieve something like this,” says Zimone. “I have a team of people who work relentlessly to create something. We’re truly like a bunch of kids pouring our hearts into something that is ours.”
A Humble Approach to Growth
Just as in the beginning when people told Zimone he was crazy for trying to open a 6,000 square-foot-restaurant in Hollywood, he says people are now telling him to go slow. “I went to school for 27 years, including an MBA, and I have never been schooled as much as I have in the last 24 months,” says Zimone. “We have plans to expand. They’re not crazy. We’re going to go with our gut and maintain a very humble approach.”
On his way to see a possible second location of da Michele with chef Giordano, Zimone says, “It’s about having fun. When you’ve stopped having fun, I think you lost.”