From Naples to Hollywood to Santa Barbara: L’antica Pizzeria da Michele

Owner Francesco Zimone Explains Why This Pizza Star Now Shines on State Street

From Naples to Hollywood

to Santa Barbara:

L’antica Pizzeria da Michele

Owner Francesco Zimone Explains Why

This Pizza Star Now Shines on State Street

By Matt Kettmann | Photos by Ingrid Bostrom | April 9, 2023

Diavola Pizza, Gnocco Fritto, Margherita Pizza, Polipo, and Fiori di Zucca (bottom left to bottom right) | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

From the outside, Francesco Zimone seemed to be living the high life in Los Angeles, renovating and designing fancy homes after successful stints in finance, film, and culinary sales. But inside, he felt incomplete.

“I had the need for expressing myself, and I also had a need for community,” explained Zimone. “My entire life was based on spending time with my work, because I do everything by hand. I had this obsession with the handmade, but I was also single and figured that there things more important in my life, like being together with people.”

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele dining room | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

He was deliberating whether to move back to Naples, Italy, where he grew up, or to open his own restaurant. He settled on doing a bit of both, hashing out a deal with the families that have run L’antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples since 1870 to bring their concept to the United States.

“I love this pizzeria, and I decided that it was the vehicle, the excuse, the way,” he explained of the historic restaurant, made pop-culture-famous by the Eat, Pray, Love book and movie. “It really felt like the right thing to do. It is who I am.”

It wasn’t exactly easy to convince those families to play ball, but when Zimone and head pizzaiolo Michele Rubini opened the first American location in Hollywood in 2019, they immediately attracted viral attention and still-steady crowds. “It really made everybody happy,” said Zimone of how the good reviews and “money in their pockets” pleased the Neapolitans, who recently announced plans to expand their own concept in Italy for the first time in a century. “That made me smile a little bit,” said Zimone.

The pandemic put a chill on the ambitious original plans to grow steadily into a small chain, but Santa Barbara happily welcomed the second domestic location of L’antica last November. “That came out of the blue,” explained Zimone of finding the building, best known as the former home of Aldo’s and the Copper Coffee Pot. “I love that space. It has a very nice energy. The courtyard reminded me of our courtyard in Hollywood.”

Less than two months later, he opened a third spot in New York City, which is where he was when he chatted on the phone in January, just as the New York Times lauded the city’s own L’antica. “To come to New York and open a 6,000-square-foot restaurant in the West Village without a trust fund or an institutional investor is basically completely cuckoo and loco and crazy,” said Zimone through his jubilant Italian accent. “But I can see that I’m capable of doing things that I’m actually scared of. I do have a firm belief that following your guts is the best. At least it gives you the opportunity to follow the magic of life.”

L’Antica’s dining room is a sleek and modern counterpoint to the historic food served. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Tasting Notes

Chef Rick Frame | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

During my first visit to Italy in the late 1990s, I was shocked to see people eat pizza with a knife and fork. A mess or so later, I ditched my handsy ways, realizing that utensils drastically cut down the time it took to cram the delicately thin pies into my face. L’antica’s pies aren’t quite fork-mandatory, but they’re so floppy that they do require a special technique.

“Fold it on itself, and then fold it again, like an envelope,” explained Rick Frame, the executive chef who designed the Santa Barbara menu, which features small plates, salads, and, of course, the paper-thin, elegantly dressed, wood-fired pizzas that only slightly resemble American versions. “You gotta set expectations early,” he said, “so people aren’t disappointed.”

Though I’d been to the Hollywood location a year before, this was my first visit to the State Street edition. Much like down south, Zimone’s modernist design is a counterpoint to the cuisine’s rustic soul, with dark blue, slate, clay, and subdued wood tones casting a stark, clean backdrop for the vivid colors and flavors of the food. It creates a vibe that can swing any which way: a quick, casual lunch stop washed down by drafts of Menabrea and Peroni; or a long, lingering dinner over multiple bottles of sparkling brut from Piedmont, mineral-y greco di tufo from Campania, fresh montepulciano from Abruzzo, and earthy nero d’Avola from Sicily.

The courtyard at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is an ideal setting to enjoy their Naples style pizzas. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Frame sent out a healthy survey of the menu to try: crunchy squash blossoms stuffed with herbed ricotta; puttanesca-esque octopus with potato, capers, and tomatoes; hearty, charmingly lumpy meatballs in heavily spiced tomato sauce; wild mushrooms with polenta and caramelized scallops in a buttery glaze; a nutty cacio e pepe–esque zucchini and basil pasta called spaghetti Nerano; and a stick-to-your-ribs pappardelle Genovese with sweet yellow onions and short ribs braised to the consistency of pulled pork. They all impressed, although somehow the shredded Caesar salad with its crunchy breadcrumbs, fried capers, and funky anchovy dressing left the strongest impression.

I’ve since been back numerous times for that salad and others, those squash blossoms and fritto misto, and, of course, the pizzas, which remain the heroes of this tale. Yes, their gossamer slices can be a little challenging to move from the serving platter to your plate, and you’d be forgiven for using a fork if you can’t flop properly. But however you navigate your bites, expect to be rewarded with a lightly soured dough, just enough toppings, and a crust that you won’t cast aside like most of us do to so many lesser pies. I’ve only taxied through Naples myself, and never visited the original L’antica, but California’s versions make it quite clear why Zimone wanted to export his homeland’s expertise to our shores.

Save room for dessert too. The torta della nonna is ridiculously lush and rewarding, its firm exterior framing a creamy custard inside. Chase with strong, piping-hot espresso.

Join the Crowd

Back on the phone, a ponderous Zimone reflected on L’antica’s achievements, explaining that a fourth location is on the way for Belmont Shore in Long Beach and that he’d happily do more with the right investors, with desires to tackle Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, and beyond. But the whole endeavor remains very personal to him.

“This project is about people, not about me. It’s about how I make other people feel great because if I do, they keep me in their heart,” said Zimone, who also found love and had his first child during this L’antica adventure. “You are chosen by human beings or you’re not. I only feel gratitude toward any human being who is willing to come in and be happy by spending a couple of hours here without the worries of life.”

1031 State St.; (805) 770-8055;

Writer Matt Kettmann shows off the spaghetti Nerano before digging in. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom


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