"Charlie, you got those menus from the party?" says husky-voiced Carmen Miceli, sitting in the venerable Italian eatery in Hollywood that bears his name. Maitre d' Charlie Chiarenza, a red handkerchief peeking out of the pocket of his dark blazer, brings over the 1949 relics. "Thirty-five cents for a pizza--how do you like that?"
With its brick walls, red-vested waiters and hanging Chianti bottles, Miceli's, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, stands as an anachronistic neighbor to uber-hip Les Deux Cafes next door. Let's just say you won't find Sharon Stone reading poetry here. But you will find Carmen, with his thin crest of mostly white hair, dark eyebrows and sideburns as thick as his trademark bread rolls.
At 76, with three sons (he has five children) running the day-to-day operations, he's free to play the raconteur. Nursing a Scotch at a table near the room-length wooden bar he built with his own hands, he waxes nostalgic on his favorite topic of the evening: World War II. "I was in five major campaigns and was wounded in four," says Miceli. He flies to Normandy the next morning for an annual reunion with members of his battalion. "For some reason, I kept going back."
Miceli survived to open what he claims was the first pizzeria west of the Mississippi, a cozy 20-by-36 room. It's put on weight since then, like someone eating Miceli's scaloppine for five decades, and now includes three floors and a cavern-like basement (there's a second location in Studio City). "I used to stay open until 5 in the morning," he sighs, reminiscing about the days when he'd serve low-alcohol near beer to skirt the 2 a.m. liquor curfew. "All the waiters, bartenders, busboys, pimps, whores, vice cops would come. It was the only place open. It was one big party every night."
The doors close a little earlier now, but the waiters and waitresses still break into "That's Amore," and a few celebrities--including Julia Roberts, Warren Beatty and James Cameron--still stumble in. Miceli would just as soon sit at the bar and dish the dirt with twentysomething Richard Bairos, who's taking a break from pouring drinks at Les Deux, or give his own bartender a hard time.
"Can I have a drink in this place or do I have to go to Musso & Frank?" he asks Nicki Fowler, a family friend he hired 10 years ago. "Musso & Frank," Fowler shoots back before refilling his Scotch.
As the night wears on, there are stories about his near-confrontation with Frank Sinatra, his business venture with a big-time Mafia honcho, his wedding on the lawn of Las Vegas' Flamingo Hotel. "I guess it wasn't such a bad life." He lights a cigarette and wanders off to bend the ear of a customer.