One of the oldest restaurants in the Valley, Antonio’s was old-school before old-school was cool, though it might surprise even some regulars to learn that it opened its doors under the name Miceli’s.
Buoyed by the success of their Italian joint on Las Palmas in Hollywood, which had opened in 1949, brothers Antonio and Carmen Miceli — plus Carmen’s wife, Sylvia, and the rest of the Miceli clan – decided it was time to take their brand of Italian food and decor over the hill to Sherman Oaks.
However, it was barely a year after Miceli’s part two opened in 1957 that a rift opened up in the family, as current owner Alex Lunardon explained.
“There was a lot of friction back then,” she said diplomatically. “Carmen and others wanted to change the recipes, start cutting some costs, and basically try to change what Antonio thought was their magic formula.”
The Miceli siblings just could not agree, so they parted ways and Antonio renamed the restaurant after himself, announcing it for all to see in the distinctive green and white neon sign that’s still glowing on the roof today.
“Antonio wouldn’t even sell to his own daughter and her husband, even though they offered more, because he wanted everything to stay just as it was. Instead he met my brother Steve and our father, and then Steve spent six months working alongside him before we took over,” explained Lunardon, 53, who took over the reins alongside Steve, 52, when Antonio retired in 1988.
Alex and Steve’s parents had fled Italy for Argentina when Mussolini came to power, and ran their own family restaurant there before coming to America in 1972. “I had almost every job there,” says Lunardon, “though I learned to speak English here in California.”
Respectful of Antonio’s legacy, they’ve made very few changes to the menu in the last 29 years.
“We added barbeque chicken and Hawaiian pizza, as everyone was always asking for them, though that was after 10 years. We didn’t want to scare the regulars.”
Inside, Antonio’s is a haven for those looking for garlic, live music or the sounds of Sinatra, candles, checkered tablecloths, twinkly lights and empty Chianti bottles, and some classic Italian-American home-cooked favorites (the fried gnocchi is a secret treasure).
The "pasta rosa" (corkscrew pasta with Parmesan, alfredo and marinara sauces, chicken and basil) is a huge favorite, too. "It was a recipe given from my uncle when he visited from London," Lunardon explains, adding that something new did go on the menu almost immediately: Caesar salad.
She also gamely suggests that gangsters used to meet in the back room here, and that a “kind of drive-by shooting” once gave everyone a scare. The newspapers are silent on that, though Antonio’s did make headlines on one notable occasion.
In August 1964 a group of cheery, placard-waving students picketed the sidewalk outside the restaurant. It wasn't a civil rights protest — Antonio had been asking them to leave because, as the news put it, they were "shoeless, shirtless and rowdy.”
Lunardon laughs. “I helped fundraise to digitize the old local newspaper archives for the L.A. Public Library and saw that picture! Antonio had told me it was a big hangout for Grant High School kids, especially after Friday night football.”
There's also apparently a picture, taken by a customer, of the resident ghost. "We think it's our mom," Lunardon says. "She used to come in here and wash dishes after my dad passed away. I believe she is looking after us."
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Antonio's recently celebrated its 60th anniversary with a week of specially priced meals, and, again looking to keep its regulars happy, started selling bottles of its “secret recipe” Italian salad dressing. There was a visit from the local deputy mayor with a certificate.
Did the family ever reunite?
“A few years ago, Antonio’s daughter — the one who had tried to buy the restaurant — came in. She was meeting a friend, but also admitted she was curious. She made the server promise not to say anything, but of course I had to go over. I gave her a quick tour and she said she’d send me some pictures of the old days, but she never did. A couple of years later I heard Antonio had some heart problems and was living with her in San Diego before he died. So it looks like they must have mended fences.”
13619 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 788-1103, antoniospizzeriala.com.