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Monday, February 24, 2014

Westport Pizzeria: Heartfelt Memories and Optimism

By James Lomuscio

It was about 10 p.m. today when Carmelo Mioli walked into Westport Pizzeria, which he has owned for 45 years on Main Street, for the last time. He walked slowly, taking in memories, getting choked up with each step.

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Brothers Joe (l) and Carmelo Mioli tonight at the new home of Westport Pizzeria, 143 Poat Road East.  (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

He stopped near the pizza oven. After hundreds of thousands of pies over the years, the last one came out at 9:15 p.m. He stared at the oven, gently tapped it a few times, and then he welled up.

“This is too emotional for me,” said Mioli, known for years around town as Mel.

He and his brother Joe first opened the place at 107 Main St. on Columbus Day 1968, serving up pizza and Italian dinners to generations of Westporters.

But Monday morning and without skipping a beat, another chapter begins. A new Westport Pizzeria is set to open at 143 Post Road East.

Squeezed out by his Main Street landlord, Mioli takes pride in the fact the new restaurant is in a building he owns.

“The advantage is that it’s my building,” Mioli had said earlier about 143 Post Road East, opposite the old post office, which he purchased for $812,500 in 2011.

“I can fix it the way I want without answering to the landlord. There’s no lease to sign, and we don’t have the insecurity of not knowing if we will have a new lease.”

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Joe Mioli helps serve some customers tonight at 107 Main St. before Westport Pizzeria closed there after 45 years. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) WestportNow.com photo

Eatalia, which has most recently occupied the building, moved out after Mioli bought out its 10-year lease, and Mioli has since remodeled the place, opening it up, putting in counter space as well as tables and making it brighter.

The move will allow him to expand his menu and for the first time to offer wine and beer.

Mioli said that he purchased the building because it was uncertain if his Main Street landlord, Malkin Properties, would renew his lease.

This year, that came to pass as Mioli and neighbor Francois du Pont Jewelers were told they had to be out by March 1.

A third business in the same building owned by Malkin, Kate Spade, closed. Now, Athleta, a division of GAP Inc., is scheduled to take over the space, according to real estate sources. The jewelry store is moving to nearby Sconset Square.

Though Mioli, longtime employees and customers say they are upbeat about the move, all agree it is hard to shake the nostalgia and bittersweet feelings they have about leaving the present location.

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First Selectman Jim Marpe and wife Mary-Ellen stopped by today for some pizza and chatted with Mel Mioli. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Manager Frank Mioli said tonight that over the weekend even some people who had moved far away had come back to have their last slice on Main Street.

“We had a couple come down from Lake Erie, a couple from New Hampshire, and someone from outside of Chicago,” he said.

The refrain is pretty much the same, he said.

“They grew up coming here,” Frank Mioli said. “A lot of people who come back to Westport come here before they even go to their parents’ house.

“And many people have been asking what we’re going to do with the signs here, and many have asked if they can have the stools,” he added, noting that most of them are going to the new restaurant.

A middle-aged woman from Fairfield first heard about the move tonight.

“What?” asked the woman who had grown up in town. “I’ve been coming here since I was 11, when my parents said I was old enough to take the minibus.”

Throughout the day, scores of well wishers came in.They included First Selectman Jim Marpe and former First Selectman Gordon Joseloff.

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The walls at 107 Main St. were filled with tributes and memorabilia. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) WestportNow.com photo

Also there was Joe Mioli, who sold out his share and retired 10 years ago to run as the Democratic candidate for state representative. He held that position for three terms before stepping down to run for the Italian parliament.

Meanwhile, Mel Mioli’s wife Carrie, sons Francesco and Alessandro, brothers John, Santo, Joe, sister Rita and nieces and nephews, all who had worked at the Main Street location at one time, had gathered at the new pizzeria to pitch in for Monday’s opening. A grand opening is scheduled for March 1.

“It’s bittersweet; that’s how I feel about it,” said nephew Anthony Carolini, who was back and forth between the two places throughout the day. “Some of my earliest memories are here, standing on boxes to make a pizza.

“It’s more than a business,” he added. “It’s a family, and I really saw that from people tonight.”

Despite the emotion of leaving, Mel Mioli remained upbeat about the new place, saying that it could not have happened at a better time, especially with the revitalization of Church Lane and the immediate Post Road area.

As he looked around the Westport Pizzeria’s new home, he could only be positive.

“It’s going to be great here,” he said.

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Posted 02/24/14 at 04:39 AM  Permalink



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