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Opera Comes a la Carte at Miceli's


The scene is a starlit village square set for a feast; a jumble of red-and-white checked tablecloths spills over terraces, balconies and arcades of stucco, brick, stained glass and wrought iron. A black cat prowls a rooftop. Through an archway, one catches a glimpse of gondolas plying Venetian canals.

"It's kind of like Pirates of the Caribbean," says waiter Steven Ted Beckler.

If Disney ever decides to do "The Barber of Seville" or "Figaro," Miceli's could provide the set--and the cast, for that matter. The waiters and waitresses are operatically trained, with credits that include "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables."

But to say that they sing would be an understatement, for they do much more than belt out opera and show tunes.

To dine at Miceli's is to participate in an evening of free-for-all musical theater.

Roberta Wall is uncorking a bottle of wine for her customers when four roving tenors pounce on her and make off with the bottle, singing lustily. Wall goes after them, snapping her fingers sternly. The lads return the filched vino and descend upon a young couple's romantic tete-a-tete. One of them sidles up to the pretty girl, while another leaps onto the back of the booth.

Later, on bended knee, Wall sings a tender Italian aria to a little boy here for his parents' anniversary party. The boy gazes into her eyes in a state of absolute rapture; Mickey Mouse never sang like this.

"You have to audition to get a job here," Beckler says, "and they don't care if you know how to wait tables."

Manager Jim Miceli agrees. He is one of the three brothers who run the Cahuenga restaurant. His father owns the original Miceli's on Las Palmas, the second-oldest restaurant in Hollywood.

"I can make a waiter out of a singer, but I can't make a singer out of a waiter," Miceli says. "These people are great. We know this is only a temporary stop for them and we try to support them. I hope they all make it to the top."

"I've worked here for six years," says Beckler, who has performed with the Sacramento Music Circus and the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera; he's currently playing Gaston in the Disneyland stage show of "Beauty and the Beast."

"I've driven buses, I worked on the Queen Mary as a bellhop, I sold shoes. This is a great place to be. If I have an audition or a callback, I can call up within five minutes of when I'm supposed to start (my shift) and they'll cover for me. If I get a show, I can leave for three months, then come back when it's over. It's a family. I even play golf with Jim."

The staff's sense of real and spontaneous fun is infectious. The servers' bravura antics are always charming, never embarrassing to their victims in the way so much audience-participation theater can be.

For all the attention to the dramatic arts, the food manages to come and go on schedule, and it lives up to the entertainment. Clearly the cooks are hired for their culinary rather than musical skills. Nothing trendy here, just classic Italian dishes and good house-brand Chianti. The Caesar salad is especially good, and the lost art of the tender chicken breast is still practiced here.

Yes, you can save your tough tofu and reedy folk songs for another night. This is Old Hollywood in all its sweet and succulent glory, the place to go for birthdays, anniversaries and the House Special--marriage proposals, for which you can reserve the Valentine's Table, a table for two on its own wrought-iron balcony.

"A couple named the Mayfields started it. They've been coming here for Valentine's Day for the past eight years. The table used to be just a decorative prop, but they asked to use it and it's been popular ever since, especially for proposals."

Miceli chuckles.

"Most of the time, the house knows about it before she does, because the guy asks us to do something special, like bring the ring in a dish of spumoni. Everyone sings and stares at them, and applauds."

* Where: Miceli's Italian Restaurant, 3655 Cahuenga Blvd. W., Los Angeles; (213) 851-3344 or (818) 508-1221.

* When: Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight; Friday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sundays, noon-11 p.m.

* Cost: Pasta dishes $8.50-$11.50. Entrees $12-$14.50. Caesar Salad $5 and $8. Wine by the glass $3.50-$5.50. Coffee drinks $3.50-$4. The Valentine Table package for two: $110, includes cocktails, bottle of wine and three-course dinner ($85 without alcohol).

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