JOSEPH ANTHONY MILICI
Published 1:02 am, Friday, June 25, 2010
A familiar figure on Westport's Main Street for 23 years, he was best known as "Oscar," the owner of Oscar's Delicatessen, which he had bought from its founder in 1968. However, many knew him as Anthony. Seven years earlier he came to Westport to manage a beauty salon. There was already a "Mr. Joseph" at the salon, so Milici went by his middle name, "Mr. Anthony."
A hairdresser for 20 years, a deli man for 17, both professions suited his character well, for he liked to tend to the comfort of other people. His generous nature made him easily accessible and within a short time after meeting him, people felt as if they knew him for years. When people walked into his deli, they were made to feel at home.
"Here, let me make you a sangwich," was a phrase almost as familiar as his flashy bow ties, bright suspenders and warm-hearted smile.
Born April 26, 1927, of Italian immigrants in the Bronx, N.Y., he grew up during the Depression and was drawn more to stick ball and pool rather than school. Not much of a reader, he never felt he had to be. His wife, Margaret, who was a voracious reader, lectured at dinner on every book she read. When asked if he had read The Godfather back when it was a sensation, he replied, "No, my wife read it. And she talks about every book she reads in such detail, I feel like I've already read it."
His first job was with his father working as a furniture finisher, on Willis Avenue. "It was one of the worst experiences in my life," he told his children. The smell of turpentine and stain pervaded the shop, and all day long, he did nothing but sand the varnish off old furniture.
The draft rescued him from the servitude of furniture finishing and he spent the next eight years, from 1945 to 1953, in and out of the U.S. Army. He arrived in Berlin after the fall, and served as staff sergeant and a military police officer in the American Quarter. Life in post-war Germany suited him, and he re-enlisted after his first two years.
The Korean War may have been his first initiation to the food profession. When recalled back into the military, he wrote that he was a cook on his enlistment form, though he had no such experience. "The cooks in the Army got to eat real eggs and steak, while the enlisted men ate powdered eggs and chipped beef," he said.
When he returned to the U.S., he tried to resume the care-free life and worked as a bartender at night for his uncle's Italian restaurant on Third Avenue in the Upper East Side. However, his parents pressured him to take up a trade. So he followed one of his older brother's example and became a hairdresser.
He trained at his brother Frank's salon in White Plains, N.Y. It was there he met his wife, Margaret, with whom he shared 56 years and raised four children.
When his company, Charles of the Ritz, gave him the opportunity to manage a beauty salon in Connecticut, it was also Margaret's opportunity to get her children out of the Bronx. By the summer of 1962, the family was living on a small lane off of Wilton Road, a half mile down from the Three Bears Inn. From a congested avenue by the elevated railroad in the Bronx, the Milicis were now surrounded by woods, ponds, frogs and groundhogs.
The salon was at the western end of Main Street, a few doors down from where the Record Hunter and the Remarkable Book Store once stood, and across the street from Gristede's. Oscar's, at that time, was about one block east, across the street from a small shopping corner which had Maxine's Furs. W & J Sloan's Furniture Clearance was on one side, and a camera repair shop on the other. When the camera shop left, Tony's Pizza moved in.
After seven years managing the salon, Milici felt there was no where else to go for lunch. Each day, he bought his bologna and mustard on a hard roll with a pickle at Oscar's. So, when the original Oscar told him one day that he was selling, Milici made an offer.
"You're my best customer, Joe," Oscar said.
Still, he had reservations about how much an Italian man who subsisted on bologna sandwiches for seven years actually knew about the food business, especially Jewish food. Brought up in a home where preparing meals was an enterprise demanding daily devotion from his mother and her three sisters, food was central to Milici's being. There were no ethnic barriers; Italian, Jewish, it did not matter. It was not just a love for food itself, but the comfort and happiness it brought that gave Milici the inspiration to take on this new role.
Oscar Sisken and his wife, Sally, made everything by hand -- pickles, potato salad, chopped chicken liver and creamed herring; they roasted beef, steamed pastrami and glazed baked Virginia ham. And subsequently so did Milici, for they taught him everything they had done for nearly 30 years. Often asked why he didn't change it to an Italian deli, milici said he did not want to break with the tradition. The store had a strong following, and for many, Oscar's was the place to go for food that was scarce in Westport in the '60s.
For Milici, it was a big change from wearing the salon manager's black suit coats to donning an apron. The smell of pickle brine and corned beef replaced the smell of shampoo and hairspray. Yet he adapted effortlessly to his new profession. The deli was his world. Whereas in everyday life he never liked to draw attention to himself, behind the deli-counter he could reveal himself without inhibition. There was a sense of theater in the way he engaged his customers. The big smile, the hand gestures, the warm greetings and the sparks of wit, all made something a bit larger than life. Even his wardrobe projected the size of his personality. He was literally a belt and suspenders man; he needed both to keep his pants up. He sported bright bow ties, flashy suspenders and shirts and pants with colors that could have provided emergency lighting if the power went out.
The original Oscar's had a railroad car design; it was an alley way with a roof over top and a floor. Grocery shelves and dairy cases lined the walls. The deli counter was in the back. The cashier and pastry cases were up by the store-front windows.
In such a small store Milici needed only one deli man, and a part-time cashier to work the busy shift. There was also a high school student named Lee Papageorge, who came in the afternoons and weekends to cook and wash pots.
Following his own father's example, Milici had all four of his children working in the store for the experience. The Milici children worked weekends from seven in the morning to six at night, and after school. They cleaned, cooked, stocked shelves and ran the cash register. And when seasoned enough, they waited on customers. The children said it was an experience they value now, but one they complained about at the time.
Milici addressed their grievances diplomatically; he put Lee in charge of them. Lee was less sympathetic to the complaints, and we could not get around him the way we did our father, they said. Lee eventually moved on, but returned several years later to become Milici's deli man.
Charles of the Ritz eventually abandoned the hair styling business, and the salon on Main Street closed. Concerned that a new restaurant would take its place and put him out of business, Milici moved Oscar's into the larger store. It was another brave step, for now he needed a partner. Although they were a generation apart in age, Lee and Milici worked well together, so it was natural that he would ask Lee to join him in the venture.
In its new home, Oscar's now had tables and chairs, and outdoor tables during the warm months; it had three or four deli-men and waitress service. No longer just a place to buy cold cuts or sandwiches, it became a popular meeting place for town residents. In addition to the lunch crowd, coffee klatches formed in the morning, as shop owners met to discuss business before opening their own stores. It was a gathering place for new artists and writers as well as familiar stars. One local artist painted a mural of the store and its owners on one of the walls. Other artists were allowed to display their painting in the store. Both Milici and Lee worked hard to make Oscar's what it became -- not only a place for good food, but a friendly place to meet.
After the move, Milici spent another nine years in the business. He retired early, at the age of 58, in 1985. He moved to Fort Meyers, Fla., where he spent the rest of his days quietly with his wife.
In November 2008, he was diagnosed with cancer. "When we heard the news and said we were coming down to see him, he didn't want anyone to fuss over him. However, a few of us went down anyway for Thanksgiving. When we told him we were coming, he already knew. `I was just looking in the newspaper to try and find some place that offers a nice Thanksgiving Dinner.' Even in the worst circumstances, our father never lost his zeal for food," Milici's children said.
"One reason people liked him so well, was because our father listened to their stories and remembered what he had heard," his children said. "Always down-playing his own achievements, he was genuinely impressed with the accomplishments of others."
Milici may not have had any big stories of his own, but he had plenty of great short ones. Like many of us, he tried to get through life as easily as possible, but when faced with responsibility, he rose to the occasion and did what he had to do.
"When each one of yous was born," he told his children, "I kept working harder and tried to better my situation so you'd all be better off." And that's what he did. He worked hard, provided well and made sure they were well fed and happy -- because growing up Italian in the Bronx, being well fed was the key to happiness.
He was the same way with his customers. Milici served "sangwiches," but making sure people were happy was his main business.
He is survived by his wife, Margaret; his four children, Joan Kuzniar and her husband, John, Michael Milici and his wife, Maureen, Joe Milici Jr. and his wife, Anna, and Jane Milici and her husband, Mario; as well as three grandsons, Jason, Anthony and Joey.