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RESTAURANT REVIEW

Spaghetti and Song

Take a big appetite for musical fare, too, when dining at Miceli's.

June 18, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Everybody comes to Miceli's for its ultra-splashy decor (balconies built into the walls; murals of the Grand Canal of Venice and a street scene in Italy--think of a Neapolitan "Pirates of the Caribbean"), for waiters who talk like Nathan Lane and sing like Richard Kiley, and for the thickest marinara this side of the Bronx. This ivy-covered Universal City-area restaurant has been around since 1949 and still packs in a high-spirited crowd every night.

But you'd better like Broadway and light opera as much as tomato paste. A waiter practically knocked one of my guests over with his basso profundo rendition of "The Impossible Dream" as we walked through the front door.

We ended up seated at a red leather booth in a prime location, just above the center of the dining room, which doubles as a stage. A series of Miceli's employees proceeded to perform everything from Chopin to Scott Joplin while we waited for a waitress.

Finally she came by to offer drinks. We asked her whether she was scheduled to perform as well. "Oh, yeah," she said, matter-of-factly, unfurling her order pad. "You gotta sing to work here."

The performing waiter concept is probably what's kept Miceli's popular all these years. Minus the singing and movie set decor, though, Miceli's would still look like the quintessential Hollywood Italian restaurant.

You probably know what's next--your basic Italian-American menu: spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, veal, chicken and various antipasti, with bruschetta as the one grudging nod to contemporary tastes. The huge pizzas are brought to the table on giant metal stands. The pastas (all the dried, rather than freshly made, sort) are practically invisible under dense blankets of sauce.

There are high spots. One is the hot sourdough rolls, delicious with whipped butter. Another is the thick-crust pizzas with a wide variety of toppings. I fancy the clam and garlic pizza: cheese, tomato sauce and a generous spread of chopped clams and minced garlic. Another good one is the Veggie House, made with fresh mushrooms, onions, bell peppers and black olives.

The reasonably tasty minestrone is of the kitchen-sink school, with kidney beans, huge pasta shells and several vegetables. The sauteed mushrooms are decent, submerged in a fairly classical butter, garlic and Marsala sauce.

On the other hand, Miceli's idea of bruschetta is a platter of toast rounds that you spoon up with a bland mixture of chopped tomatoes, basil and garlic.

The pastas tend to be mushy, but the portions are certainly large. The huge meat-filled ravioli are veritable dough boats. The rather bready meatballs in the spaghetti look as big as soccer balls. But a hearty thumbs up on the sausages--huge, beautifully browned and redolent of fennel and spices.

If you spend a little extra, you can get one of the veal or chicken dishes. The best veal dish is probably veal Miceli, indulgently sauteed with mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, garlic, white wine and marinara sauce. The similar but richer chicken cacciatore isn't bad at all.

BE THERE

Miceli's, 3653 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Universal City. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 3 p.m.-midnight Saturday, 3-11 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, $26-$43. Suggested dishes: clam and garlic pizza, $11.50-$15, mostaccioli with Italian sausage, $10.50; veal Miceli, $15.50; chicken cacciatore, $12.95. Call (818) 851-3344.

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