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Tuesday, August 4 News

Woog’s World: There will never be another Westport Pizzeria

In October 1968, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey battled for the presidency. Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave black power salutes at the Mexico City Olympics. “Hey Jude” topped the record charts.

And on Oct. 12, 1968 — its opening day of business — Westport Pizzeria sold a slice for 25 cents.

It’s now January 2020. We’re starting a new decade, well into a new century. President Donald Trump is battling to save his improbable presidency, Colin Kaepernick’s knee reminds us that race relations and sports are still combustible subjects, and even though half the band members who sang it are gone,“Hey Jude” still rocks.

It costs more than a quarter to buy a slice these days, but after tomorrow, you’ll have to do it somewhere other than Westport Pizzeria. Jan. 11 is the last day of business for the simple, beloved restaurant that for 46 years anchored Main Street. For the past five it has serves pizza lovers of all ages and income levels on the Post Road.

There are fancier places serving fancier pies all over town. From chains like Planet Pizza to trendy Tarry Lodge, and the creative menus of spots like Romanacci and Ignazio’s — not to mention every other nonpizzeria that offers the versatile dish — you can eat your way from one end of town to the other, and still not get your fill.

But there will never be another Westport Pizzeria.

According to Restaurant Brokers, up to 90 percent of independent establishments close during their first year. The ones that survive last an average of only five years.

The pizzeria — that’s all you need to say; everyone here knows which one you mean — skews those statistics wildly. How did they do it?

The secret starts not with a secret sauce, at least not the tomato variety. Westport Pizzeria’s story begins and ends with the Mioli family. They’re the founders and still the only owners. Brothers Mel and Joe were the mainstays.

Mel has been there all 51 years. He’ll be 80 in May, so he was just 28 when the restaurant opened. Joe was with him for the first 36 years, leaving in 2005 to run for the state Legislature. He won, and for three terms brought his small-business experience to Hartford.

Mel and Joe’s brothers, John and Santo, and sister Rita also worked there. So did various nieces and nephews, Mel’s wife Carrie and their sons Francesco and Alessandro.

“Family” extends to longtime employees too. Jacques Voris and others have worked there so long, they might as well as be Miolis. Their longevity is telling. You don’t get that kind of loyalty unless you’re a kind, caring boss.

The Miolis treated their customers just like their staff. Stories abound about their generosity and goodness. New in town, without a checkbook or cash? Down on your luck, without a dime? Forgot your wallet or your credit card, or your date ate more than you expected? No problem. Come back and pay whenever you can. In the meantime — mangia!

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The Miolis knew something else too: Don’t mess with a good thing. They found a great way to make pizza — and a fantastic oven — and they did not try to fix what was not broken. They had more than pizza on the menu, of course — salads, grinders, lasagna, some parms — but not too much. They did not try to be all things to all people.

In 21st-century corporate speak, they “stuck to their lane.” It served them well. And their customers always felt well-served.

I’m pretty sure that Westport Pizzeria is the second oldest restaurant in Westport. Gold’s has it beat by about a decade. There’s a different owner now, one who had the sense and grace to keep the name of its revered founder, Julius Gold, but it too never wavered from the formula that works: A classic delicatessen, nothing more but nothing less.

Five or six decades for a local business is remarkable. Only two other Westport examples come to mind. Both are very different from restaurants. As such, they’ve had to change with the times.

One is Mitchells. Now in its third generation — with the fourth waiting in the wings — it has evolved from a tiny men’s clothing shop to a much larger, high-end store with women’s and jewelry departments. The company now owns several other retailers, on the East and West Coasts, but their headquarters is Westport. Wisely, they’ve allowed each store to keep its original family name.

Gault, meanwhile, has moved from hauling coal, through oil, on to home energy solutions. It was founded in 1863 — 157 astonishing years ago.

If Westport Pizzeria made it that long, it would last until 2125.

But 51 years is still well worth honoring. Mangia, indeed!

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.