It took a former film finance pro to figure out how to bring back to life the space that once housed Café des Artistes, a favorite Hollywood hangout throughout the ’90s and ’00s. After the cozy restaurant closed in 2011, the spot sat empty until first-time restaurant owner Francesco Zimone bought rights to open the first U.S. location for Naples’ famous L’antica Pizzeria da Michele.
Da Michele gained worldwide fame when “Eat Pray Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert had a culinary epiphany there, then appeared in the film adaptation. In the book, she posits that it could possibly be “the best pizza in the world” — an extremely debatable statement, but one that turned the name into an international success.
Zimone first came to America from Italy to work in finance at Lionsgate, then worked for Dino de Laurentiis at Universal before turning to home design and development. While he’s been out of the industry for a while, he remembers it fondly, saying, “Jon Feltheimer is an inspiration every day.”
So why license the da Michele concept? “I just really loved this pizza, for ever and ever,” he says. Head pizza maker and partner Michele Rubini is a Naples native who was trained with the Association Verace Pizza Napoletana.
At first, Zimone looked for restaurant spaces in Venice, but couldn’t find what he wanted — an outdoor courtyard was a must for the kind of atmosphere he sought. When he saw the former Café des Artistes location, he fell in love, but “the space was a disaster,” he said. Raiding his savings, he designed everything himself. The front door is just off Sunset Boulevard, yet seems like a secret entrance. It opens onto a front patio that flows into a casual lounge with a fireplace and couches.
A long bar serving beer and Southern Italian wines (cocktails are coming soon) stretches toward the brick-lined rear courtyard, where another fireplace warms rows of tables. On the side, a separate building houses the wood-burning pizza oven, where diners can watch the pies being baked through large windows.
The double-fermentation pizzas take just 45 seconds to cook in the uber-hot coals — which should help speed things along when customers start to clamor for the signature Margherita or the Bianca with mozzarella and pecorino, sans tomatoes. There’s also Pizza Fritta, a popular Naples street food that resembles a puffy calzone. The soft, chewy pizzas are simple and satisfying, but there’s plenty of other things to try, from a salumi plate with Prosciutto di Carpegna and capicolla to lamb meatballs, tuna tartare, seared scallops and octopus with tomatoes and lentils.
“If you don’t have the flavors right, if you don’t have the quality, then you’re missing the boat,” he says.
“It was a struggle,” Zimone says of the long road to opening the restaurant. But he has lots of plans in store, including working with at-risk youth to introduce them to the restaurant business.
He still hopes to find a Westside location — and has rights to open da Micheles in the U.S., Canada and Mexico — but for now just getting the first U.S. da Michele off the ground is enough. “This place gives me great vibes, I don’t know whether I’m in Hollywood or Italy,” Zimone says.