A Hot Movie Means a Bigger Piece of the American Pie for a Greek Immigrant Who Owns the Real Mystic Pizza
S. Avery Brown
01/09/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
As the owner of a modest 50-seat pizza parlor in the picturesque Connecticut town of Mystic, Steve Zelepos had handled a lot of dough, but it wasn't exactly the kind they hand out to lottery winners. So when a bunch of movie people sauntered into his place in the summer of 1986 and told Zelepos they were going to shoot a film that would make his pizzeria famous, the 50-year-old Greek immigrant figured they were talking pie in the sky. Yet he cheerfully uttered the Hellenic equivalent of "what the heck" and gave them permission to use his parlor's name and logo.
Two years passed, and then something positively mystical happened. Quicker than you can say "hold the anchovies!" Mystic Pizza—a low-budget movie produced by the Samuel Goldwyn Company—turned out to be the sleeper hit of the season. Of course, Mystic Pizza, the movie, is a fictional account of the lives and loves of three young waitresses. But since the film's release, Mystic Pizza, the place, has become a tourist attraction with as much sizzle as anything that ever came out of its ovens.
Zelepos and his wife, Fofi, 40, first realized they were in the fast-food lane when their plastic-coated menus began vanishing. Souvenir hunters also pocketed the ashtrays, and people even began asking for unused pizza cartons. On the plus side, the Mystic Pizza T-shirts that were seen in the movie—the ones that say A SLICE OF HEAVEN and are priced at $10 apiece—began to sell faster than the house special with the works. And just as in the film, Mystic Pizza's owners started getting phone calls for reservations, a novelty for restaurants of its kind. "I tell them to come down and take their chances," Steve says with a shrug.
Mystic Pizza started on its march toward cinematic glory when Los Angeles-based screenwriter Amy Jones vacationed in the postcard-pretty tourist town, which boasts an aquarium, a planetarium and a working recreation of an 18th-century seaport. While sampling some of Zelepos' pizza, Jones decided that the cozy restaurant might make an interesting setting for a movie. A script was completed in 1985, and filming began on location in Mystic and adjacent towns in the fall of 1987.
Only exterior shots of the actual Mystic Pizza appear in the movie because the restaurant's interior was deemed too cramped for filming. Besides, the Zeleposes weren't about to let Hollywood shut down their business for three months. Instead, the moviemakers built a replica pizza parlor inside a lobster warehouse in nearby Stonington. They borrowed the real Mystic Pizza's beer license, wall posters, pizza pans—"anything they could find with our name on it," says Steve. Most members of the Zelepos family stayed away from the set, but Steve and the youngest of his three sons, George, 16, do appear onscreen briefly, playing customers. "It actually was fun," says Steve, who was paid $50 as an extra.
Still, he admits to a number of quibbles with the movie script. For starters, Steve sniffs, "they didn't use any of our pies. They used frozen and day-old pizzas. Real Mystic Pizza pizzas are thicker." The movie also depicted Mystic Pizza's owners as Portuguese-Americans, a fact that offends Zelepos' sense of ethnic pride: "Who ever heard of Portuguese pizza?" He and Fofi grew up in Greece, spent nine years in Australia and landed in Mystic in 1971. It was entirely true, however, that Mystic Pizza's owners, in life as in art, claim a secret pizza-sauce recipe, which they zealously guard. Steve says he got it from his predecessor, an Italian-American from whom the Zeleposes bought the pizza parlor 14 years ago.
In the past two months Mystic Pizza has rung up a 25 percent increase in sales that Zelepos attributes solely to the film. "It's nice to have this kind of success, but it's too much for us to keep up with," he says a little grumpily. "It happened so fast—boom, boom, boom. Fofi and I haven't had supper together at home for months."
One other matter has troubled Zelepos. When the film producers first approached him, Steve casually signed a waiver allowing free use of the Mystic Pizza name. "I gave them permission without really knowing what I was doing," he says. Now, because of the movie's success—$11.3 million in box office receipts, against production costs of only $6 million—the film company has plans to serve up a sequel, and Zelepos has hired a lawyer. If and when there is a Mystic Pizza II, the proprietor intends this time to have a slice.
—Dan Chu, and S. Avery Brown in Mystic