A couple of years ago, I was asked to contribute an essay to an online survey of “My most memorable meals.” I decided to write about Zito’s and to write this…

My most memorable meals would probably have more to do with who was across the table than what was on it. Get the right dinner companion and a two-fer coupon at Arby’s can yield a more memorable event than Passover with Wolfgang Puck.

But, looking just at what was on the plate, I can’t help but think of the best Italian restaurant of my childhood — Zito’s, which was on Pico Boulevard in West L.A., two blocks west of Westwood. Mr. Zito ran the business end and Mrs. Zito was in the kitchen, whipping up a dark, brown meat sauce, the likes of which I’ve yet to encounter. It was rich and obviously cooked slow and long…and if I knew what it contained, I wouldn’t be writing this, I’d be downstairs whipping up a batch.

Zito’s went out of business in the seventies and, since then, I trek from Italian restaurant to Italian restaurant, searching for anything even vaguely like Mama Zito’s masterwork. I’ve had some fine meals in my quest but, so far, no success in locating a clone. (Sometimes, when I sit down to plate of spaghetti in some obscure town I’ll never again visit, I am of two minds: I, of course, hope the meal will be wonderful…but what if I find a sauce comparable to Zito’s in a dive well off the Interstate in Jerkwater, Michigan? When am I ever going to be back there? How will I drag friends to that wonderful restaurant?

So far, this has not been a problem because I haven’t found it. I’ve also looked closer to home and haven’t found it there, either. Zito’s building stood empty for a year…then another Italian restaurant moved in. It was and is named Anna’s and, of course, I went there and found perfectly fine Italian food. But not like Zito’s.

I asked the operators of Anna’s and they told me that Mr. and Mrs. Zito had both passed away, as had the other members of the Zito family. They knew because I wasn’t the first Zito’s patron to inquire. Some had even (apparently) called representing major food corporations, hinting there might be Big Bucks if someone could come up with the recipe for Zito’s meat sauce. Alas, no one could.

I told this story once to a restaurant critic. To my surprise, he said, “It’s just as well. The recipe probably wouldn’t have yielded the same results in someone else’s hands.” Good food, he explained to me, can be created from a good recipe…but great food is a function of the person who prepares it. In other words, the secret ingredient in Mrs. Zito’s sauce was Mrs. Zito. She spent all day making it, no doubt, stirring it, tasting it, adding a pinch of this or a dash of that. “It’s like painting,” he explained. “I can tell you what color to paint a vase of flowers but that doesn’t mean you’re going to produce a Van Gogh.”

I’m afraid he’s right. How sad to think that Mrs. Zito took my favorite meal with her to the grave. On the other hand, I’ll bet God’s eating well.

Since I wrote this, Anna’s has closed down and will be the subject of another post here.

14 Responses to Zito’s

  • Jackie E Cole Weiser says:

    I went to Zitos with my mother, sister, grandmother and I every Thursday for 11 years because my dad would come home late from work. We knew Mr and Mrs Zito very well as he watched me grow-up from late 50’s until 1970. Mr Zito always walked us to our table. My family ordered the same meal every week and they had same 2 waitresses for all those years. Then Mr and Mrs Zito retired to the racetrack and they gave their restaurant to daughter Anna. Unfortunately I know that everyone loves Anna’s but the sauce was not like her parents recipes. I was very disappointed. I never went back because I missed her parents. Does anyone have a photo of the Zitos Restaurant?

  • Gary H says:

    Went as a boy many Friday nights. Loved the half spaghetti half meat ravioli

    Nothing has tasted as good since

    Such a great place

  • Ted Woolery says:

    Zito’s/Anna’s was the only Italian restaurant my family ever went to up to the week Anna’s closed.

    My most memorable meal, and I remember it as if it was yesterday, was at Zito’s. I was with my Mom and Dad and I was about 14. Natalie Wood was with a date seating in a booth near us. I feigned a trip to the restroom so I could get a closer look and when I approached, she looked up and smiled at me. Well it was like getting struck in the face by lighting. I fell in love and remain so to this very day. A beautiful, beautiful women. Tragedy.

    Further east on Pico, is there anyone still alive that remembers Willard’s? It was E/of Fox and across from the Hill Crest CC. It was a large green bungalow that sat up on a knoll and served fried chicken family style. Has to be in the late 40’s.

    Speaking of bungalows and still being alive, in Hollywood, “The Bungalow” on La Brea W/S of street just N/of Santa Monica Bl. Use to work up there and everyone went there for lunch. Big bar and a steak sandwich with great cheese bread. Circa early 60’s.

  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (NM) says:

    No…I never heard of nor made it to Zito’s back in my LA days. Yo, years later my S-i-L married a Joe Zito in Albuquerque tho…LOL. So sad few places serve Veal Parmigiana nowadays or as I was introduced to it as a Tween, a Veal Cutlet. How embarrassing per one ‘bad’ experience, I’d always pipe up “Not gristly, please!” without reflecting that who the heck is going to order it “gristly!”
    So sad recipes go by the wayside! Indeed, adding finely ground “Anchovies” is v e r y interesting!!!. I swear the bones of a pizza I had in Chelmsford, MA in the ’50s had a fried egg flavor. Anyone anywhere ever taste that? Maybe they whisked some egg to slather on the edge of the pie? “Chow!”

  • Laurie Miller says:

    Zito’s was the first restaurant I remember going to with my family. It was also my introduction to Italian food (and, 55 years later, I still measure other restaurants by Zito’s!) and provided me with wonderful memories of my parents. Yes, the meat sauce was wonderful, but so was the antipasto, salad dressing, and garlic bread — pretty much everything was delicious. We would always start with the antipasto, and my dad would dish out our “favorite parts” to my mom, brother, and me (I was the picky eater who stuck with the salami, olives, tomatoes and a wee bit of lettuce). Then came the spaghetti and whatever other entrees my parents would order. Again, since I was so picky, I’d get “an empty plate and a glass of milk,” but it wasn’t long before they found the secret to getting me to eat: take me to Zito’s. Mr. and Mrs. Zito always welcomed us like we were old friends — again, a standard that I look for in other restaurants. Thank you for the wonderful write-up and for this equally wonderful website.

  • Edgard Mansoor says:

    I wouldn’t know where to start. If I say I, my 10 brothers & sisters, our wives and husbands “ALL OF US” used to have dinner at Zito’s literally every Saturday and/or Sunday, you would call me a liar. But honestly, the truth is that we did. If anyone missed one of these dinners, he or she must have not been feeling “VERY WELL”. And we’ve done that for no less than 10 or 12 years as far as I can remember, until the days came when each one of us went his/her way. Today I live in Virginia. Where is the good Italian Food. Where is the place that can match Zito’s “Veal Parmigiana”? More than anything else, most every time, Mrs. Zito used to come out of her kitchen to hug as many of us as her time could permit.

    Why did I have to browse the web and see this write-up about Zito’s and remind me of the good old “Zito’s Days”. I never though that at 88 I would shed tears of mixed happiness and sadness.
    Edgard Mansoor

  • Gina Piantadosi Adams says:

    I was so glad to find this reference to Zito’s! We had a family of seven children, and didn’t do much eating out until several brothers and sisters had flown the nest, but there was a period of time where we ate at Zito’s regularly. Even my mother, who always loved the opportunity to have the house to herself, would join the group if we were going to Zito’s, so good was Mrs. Zito’s cooking. I can’t remember how my father knew John Zito, but their greetings were always so warm, Mr. Zito always putting a hand to my dad’s face. That warmth, coupled with the good food and the company of BOTH my parents turned those visits into some of my best childhood memories. Vi ringrazio tanto, John and Josephine!

  • Jerry Entin says:

    In my youth we always went to Zito’s and the food was always great.I liked their Veal Parmigiana , I think Brandie’s older sister went with Bruce Kessler the movie director and race car driver.

  • Michael Fuhrman says:

    My mom and I ate at Zito’s often, I would always get the spagetti and meatballs with meat sauce, One thing I do know that I believe was the secret to the sauce is that they finely ground up Anchovies and added to the sauce, you would never suspect it but try it at home in your own sauce. They also had the best Antipasto.

  • T. G. Smith says:

    In 1956 I worked with Mr. Zito’s son, Tony, at Douglas Aircraft, in Santa Monica. When I left there, Tony gave me a goingaway lunch at the family restaurant. I’d really like to know if Tony is still alive. If anyone knows, tell me at: tgsmith36@earthlink.net Greatly appreciate it. T. Smith

  • Chuck Dean says:

    If the meat sauce is as good as the Christmas cookies Brandie made for me and my co-volunteer at the Las Vegas USO I’m sold. Brandie you need to market that sauce maybe, but keep the recipe under lock and key…it sounds priceless.

  • Brandie Lewin says:

    A friend of mine just sent this to me via e-mail. I can’t tell you how amazed and emotional I got while reading this. I am the youngest daughter of John & Josephine Zito and the only surviving family member. I agree – my Mom was the world’s best cook and a beautiful human being as well. I do have most of her recipes and you are right, she always added another pinch of this and a drop of that but I think I have mastered most of her recipes. Thank you so much for writing about her and my Dad. I have sent your article to my daughters, both of whom were too young to remember their grandparents but who have heard many stories about Nana and Papa throughout the years.

  • Charlotte o. says:

    Josephine zito was my godmother. My aunt Carmella also prepared food in the kitchen. Aunt Carmella passed away years ago also. Now, I was taught by my mother to make Sicilian style spaghetti sauce, which I have to say, is quite good. My godmother Josie was a beautiful and classy women. Thank you for saying such nice things about her.

  • Daniel Kravetz says:

    This was the ONLY Italian restaurant my family ever went to while we lived in L.A. We loved it, but I probably would have appreciated it more if we’d gone to others now and then.

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