Editor’s Note: This is the first in our new essay series Holes in the Wall, highlighting independent restaurants whose craft achieves the level of genuine artistry.
The Good Life
by Jack H. Simons
“Chicago, Chicago, that Toddling Town”
Frank Sinatra had it right.
“They have the time of their life in Chicago.”
A Chicago pizza and a Polish hot dog are two of the greatest treats I can remember from my youth in the 50s. We bought the hot dogs from a cart on the sidewalk, and the pizzas from eight-table pizza restaurants where the cooks threw flat circles of dough in the air without it being an affectation. “Joints”– we called them – and you knew a joint when you saw it.
I preferred ‘joint’ to the tonier word ‘restaurant,’ as in McDonald’s Restaurant (a sleek, fat cat, roadside hamburger joint), or The 21 Club restaurant of New York City, whose founders, Jack Kreindler and Charlie Berns, always knew they were just running a joint.
By definition, a joint is an informal establishment where people meet for eating, drinking, and entertainment. Franchise restaurants can never qualify – their studied android qualities don’t ever feel quite real; their struggling managers can never consult the heart, bound as they are by the corporate book – which imitates life, but isn’t. A joint always has a local owner who treats his establishment as an extension of his heart and soul – it’s a world of difference.
“My Kind of Town”
A few years ago, many miles and decades removed from the revels of my childhood, I stumbled upon a Chicago pizza joint in, of all places, Granada Hills, California. An establishment blessed (in more ways than one) by Ole Blue Eyes, himself.
First class inside and out, Casa de Pizza is what I would call a great experience. It may be the best Italian joint in all of Los Angeles. Some might disagree, but look at Yelp – more than 400 reviews and a 4.5 score. (Most of the few negative scores are related to the small size of the joint – which I happen to think is perfect.)
The founders of Casa de Pizza aren’t famous like those of The 21 Club, but they deserve to be. In 1956, while I was still making my pizza-joint memories, Mike and Phyllis Giovanelli left Chicago for California. They opened their pizza parlor in 1961, in a short strip mall on San Fernando Mission Blvd.
It started out as a door-in-the-wall take-out place – which meant a pizza oven, a counter, a narrow waiting room, and a store-room in the back. The Giovanellis applied the normal ingredients for success: hard work, perseverance, love for the opportunity, and a passion to provide for all who come through the door.
Their son, Vito Giovanelli, worked alongside them. He eventually inherited, and keeps the joint to this day, in the original location. By the same process as a tree’s steady growth, today’s Casa de Pizza has moved far from its humble beginnings.
“Good Thing Going”
What does the joint offer? Much. The first surprise is that like Dr. Who’s Tardis, the interior is larger than appears possible from the sidewalk. In 1965, at the request of customers, the Giovanellis turned their store-room into an eight-table pizza parlor. Mike saw in the new dining area a space that he could decorate in homage to his over-riding passion – Frank Sinatra. He tastefully stuffed the room with all conceivable Sinatra memorabilia.
One night, Sinatra visited Casa de Pizza after hours. He said: “Give me the best pizza in the house.” So the legend goes. He admired the extensive memorabilia, gave Mike permission to call it The Sinatra Room, and left a $900 tip.
Classy, homey, coordinated in taste and era, the Sinatra Room grew to its present size when Vito acquired the railroad car-like shop next door and knocked down part of the wall between. The room is a visual history of Sinatra’s career. Sinatra videos play constantly on flat television screens, his voice piped to every corner of the room.
“Let’s Face the Music and Dance”
From the beginning, Sinatra songs played on the house sound system. Then one day, Vito brought a bass to the restaurant (whether it was stand-up or guitar, no one has said). Vic Finielo appeared in 1980 – a character whose cigarette-smoke cured voice could croon through the entire Sinatra repertoire as though he were Ole Blue Eyes himself – he had been singing all the Sinatra songs professionally since the ‘40s, and though life beached him in Lancaster, he found Casa de Pizza and continued singing them every Thursday night until his death in 2011.
Live bands still perform on Thursday nights. Two Thursdays a month are devoted to Sinatra songs. Two Thursdays a month they explore a whole range of songs – from Pop to Pavarotti. The band plays two sets in front of two audiences – there is no cover charge. Music nights are great date or family nights.
The band I heard most recently had Michael Murphy on keyboard, Gary Hess – drums, Tony Galla – singer and guitarist, and Vito Giovannelli – bass. It was a Pop to Pavarotti night, and considering that the live band is on the house – tip jar available – it was a high class performance. A critic might ask how good can a musician be who plays for tips on a Thursday night? In Los Angeles they are among the best musicians in the world.
“Mack the Knife”
I have never had a bad, or even indifferent meal at Casa de Pizza. Someone has made that kitchen a work of love – whether it was Mike, or Mama, or Vito, or all three plus the help – someone has held the food to the highest standard.
On Yelp, almost all the reviews brag on the food. You will find customer after customer who applauds Jen’s Pesto Garlic Cheese Bread.
The menu lists twenty-five “Casa Entrees.” Two of them – Eggplant Parmigiana and Linguini with Clam Sauce – are labeled “Mom’s Original Recipe”. The stuffed peppers are called “Vito’s Own”. There are six Casa Specialty Pizzas with eighteen possible variations listed. Not to mention three salads, seven side orders, eight variations of ravioli, and numerous pasta choices with various supplements such as meat sauce or sausage. Not to mention nine hot and cold sandwiches. I found the Chicken Piccata, a recent addition to the menu, tender and delicious.
My favorite Casa dish is the Antipasto. I, early in life, developed a fondness for antipasto, but I find the versions at most Italian restaurants to be borderline inedible.
Vito always looks at me like I am slightly off-balance when I praise the Antipasto. It may be because the salad is simplicity itself: Lettuce, Tomatoes, Pepperoni, Olives, Garbanzo Beans, Pepperoncini, Mozzarella Cheese, Green Onions, Celery, Salami, Provolone Cheese, and Italian dressing.
It is so simple, why can’t anyone else make it?
“Fly Me to the Moon”
I could go on: The least expensive great time one can have in Los Angeles is at Casa de Pizza. Even the low-priced wines taste special.
Relaxed, jovial, friendly – many words apply. The pictures on the walls, the music in your ears make a visit to Casa de Pizza a pleasant trip down memory lane. Some cautions: Make a reservation – the restaurant fills to capacity at peak lunch times, and often fills in the evening. Without a reservation, you will wait on the sidewalk, or in the small waiting area; the servers are friendly and helpful, but often are run off their feet. And on music nights, be prepared to move along after the first set to make room for second-set reservations. (It’s nothing personal, Yelpers.)
“I Did It My Way”
The Casa de Pizza slogan says it all: “It’s a nice-a place to feed-a your face!”
I ate at a famous franchise Italian restaurant last night, and here’s the take-away: The bill was 50 percent higher than Casa de Pizza, and Vito would have thrown the food served into the garbage can. I won’t make that mistake again.
I’ll go to my favorite pizza joint — Casa de Pizza.
“Wrap your troubles in dreams, and dream your troubles away.”