Soup or Saaa-lad

In "Play It As It Lays," Joan Didion places the still center of the turning world at the corner of Sunset and La Brea, a decade or so before everything around that intersection was leveled for mini-malls. Yeats, long dead, had no comment.

A couple of blocks north and east, at the intersection of Hollywood and Las Palmas, you are pretty much 30 seconds away from everything that's still wonderful about old Hollywood. A few steps toward Cherokee, and you're at the martini-drenched Musso & Frank Grill, a dark-wood place that has aged a lot more gracefully than Columbia Pictures. A bit west, there's the Egyptian, the most perfect of Charles Lee's splendid Deco movie theaters: the '20s Tut-iana lends even Adrian Lyne pictures a certain grandeur. South, there's the fine Las Palmas newsstand, next door to that is Baroque Books, a storefront as yellow with age as a 1957 copy of Look, and the best source around for first editions of Fante and Bukowski. Down an alley is the entrance to the cellar that used to house Los Angeles' first punk-rock club--you can still see some of the circa-'77 punk graffiti if you look really hard.

Across the street from the newsstand is Miceli's Italian Restaurant. Musso's bar, the Egyptian, Miceli's: a self-contained evening to remember. The last time I called 411 and asked for the number of the place, the operator sang out "soup or saaa -lad" the same way some of the waiters do. Then he gave me the number.

Miceli's appears to be the model for the restaurant scene in "Lady and the Tramp," an ancient, baroque pizzeria with red candle globes, checked tablecloths, and ceilings encrusted with autographed Chianti flasks. It's the sort of dim, atmospheric pizzeria only Hollywood could have invented. (I never go to the Univeral City location--the waiters have a tendency to break out into song.)

In a raised area near the bar, a piano player plays modal, subtly jazzy versions of standards, and a half-consumed cigarette dangles from his lower lip. Sometimes he's supplemented on weekends by a guy on upright bass and another on a muted horn. Run since 1949 by the Miceli family, Miceli's is one of the most democratic restaurants around, equally popular with families, swells and leather-jacketed death rockers with rings through their noses. There's an inevitable hour's wait on rainy Sunday nights, so come at 7, just before the inevitable 7:30 rush. See if you can't wait a little longer and get a table in Toni's section. Toni Hines is the den mother to half of pizza-eating Los Angeles.

If Toni doesn't think you need that extra platter of linguine, the linguine stays in the kitchen. If you order a bottle of Chianti, Toni makes you open the wine list and tell her what number it is. If it's your birthday, Toni rushes from the kitchen with a little dish of spumoni, a candle blazing in the middle, four strands of uncooked spaghetti stuck in around the perimeter. She sings "Happy Birthday" in a cracked Ethel Merman bray that's probably loud enough to disrupt concerts at the Hollywood Bowl a mile north. She sings out "soup or saaa -lad." She seems happy that you're there.

Miceli's is unique, but its menu is more or less the one you've seen at 10,000 other pizza restaurants around the country--garlic bread, spaghetti 'n' meatballs, a chilled antipasto salad that's whisked onto your table 30 seconds after you order it, peperoncini, packaged pepperoni and all. The Caesar salad may be nothing like a real Caesar, but it's pretty good anyway, torn lettuce drenched in a creamy dressing and studded with fat, garlicky croutons. The rolls aren't exactly what you'd get at La Brea Bakery, but the salty, hard-shelled cannonballs are fresh and hot. Eggplant cacciatore is limp and overbreaded, but the sausage "scaloppine" is fine: thick slices of spicy Italian sausage sauteed with peppers and mushrooms and an intense tomato sauce amped up with garlic and wine.

The spaghetti may be too sweet and on the far, far side of al dente--especially the wan mini-portions that come along with entrees--but is probably no worse than that at any other Los Angeles red-sauce joint. Spaghetti with spinach and oil and a jolting amount of fresh garlic is pretty good, in fact, a hearty, odoriferous plate of food. And the pizza . . . were you expecting barbecued duck with endive? . . . is pizza, with an underbaked thin crust, tart tomato sauce, and a thick layer of melty cheese that stretches the length of the table. It's the pizza of your youth, unless you grew up in New York or Chicago. And sometimes, it's just good enough.

Miceli's, 1646 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood, (213) 466-3438. Open daily, 4 p.m. to midnight, Friday-Saturday to 1 a.m., Saturday-Sunday, from 2 p.m. Full bar. Validated lot parking. Takeout. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$30.

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