Miami’s Best Pizza in Coral Gables plans to celebrate its coming 50th year in business by making like it’s 1970 all over again.
The reborn pizza joint and popular hangout for University of Miami students and faculty opened under the Little Caesar’s name at 1514 S. Dixie Hwy in 1970 and lasted there for 44 years (re-branded as Miami Best Pizza in 1989). It reopened in 2018 at 5833 Ponce de Leon Blvd. near Titanic Brewery (the former folk music hotbed coffeehouse, The Flick, in the 1960s.)
On Wednesday, Miami’s Best Pizza is celebrating with a birthday bash with a retro vibe.
No, we don’t think there will be news photos from Vietnam plastered on the store front’s walls, or a King Crimson mural, or Simon & Garfunkel, Three Dog Night or Jimi Hendrix on the sound system. (Though we wouldn’t mind if they did.)
Instead, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday, the restaurant will offer select items at 1970’s throwback prices — like a $2.70 small cheese pizza. But $1 toppings and $1 fountain drinks might not exactly match what people paid during the Nixon Administration.
MBP is also offering a limited edition souvenir cup, while supplies last.
There will also be appearances by Billy the Marlin and the Mermaids in honor of MBP’s concession at Marlins Park baseball stadium.
Here’s a look back at Miami’s Best Pizza from the Miami Herald archives.
End of an era for Miami’s Best Pizza
Published Sept. 28, 2014
Miami’s Best Pizza employees confirmed what a tipster reported earlier: The venerable Coral Gables pizza shop is closing after 44 years at 1514 S. Dixie Hwy., citing rising rent.
“It’s not our decision,” says an employee who declined to give her name. “It’s the landlord.”
The family-owned restaurant has been in that location since 1970, first as a Little Caesars franchise for two decades, then as Miami’s Best Pizza since 1989.
That’s when original owner “Big” Al Papich, a former University of Miami football player, passed the pizza-making torch to his son, Ray, and Ray’s business partner, Charles Butler.
Miami’s Best Pizza, popular for its discounts for UM students, Miami-Dade County employees and people over 62, evolved with the times. It didn’t accept credit or debit cards until 2007, and late-night hours were relatively new.
Still, the pizzas remain hand-tossed, as they were in 1970.
“We’re working owners,” Ray Papich told the Miami Herald on the restaurant’s 40th anniversary. “We make the pizzas. You are always going to see an owner in the window.”
The restaurant has not landed on a final date of service, the employee said, adding that the plan is to reopen in a location to be determined.
‘Best Pizza’ Celebrates 30 years in business
Published April 15, 1999
Richard Nixon was in his first year as president. The Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” was a No. 1 hit. The best new artist was Crosby Stills & Nash.
And Miami’s Best Pizza on U.S. 1 was born. Of course, it wasn’t called that back in 1969 when the eatery incorporated as Florida’s first Little Caesar’s at 1514 S. Dixie Hwy.
“This place boomed. It rocked. It was in the Top 10 Little Caesar’s in the country for years,” says Thelvius “Thad” Winieckie, one of two managers preparing to celebrate the restaurant’s 30th anniversary Saturday.
Owners Charles Butler and Ray Papich — whose father Peter “Big Al” Papich, a University of Miami football player, opened the restaurant — changed the name 10 years ago after the original franchise agreement expired. It no longer had a connection to the Detroit-based chain, Winieckie said.
“We never evolved with them,” he said. “They were never here. We never had Crazy Crust. We were a completely different store from theirs.”
They took a poll among customers to come up with the new name, Winieckie said.
Miami’s Best expanded last year, doubling its space with 1,200 additional square feet. Salads, desserts and pasta platters including spaghetti, stuffed shells and ravioli have been added to the menu.
But the pizza is the same.
That’s because not only does the eatery have many of the same suppliers, but also many of the same employees.
Winieckie could be called the “rookie,” and he joined the team in 1982. Butler and manager Rick Hoover were there in 1972. Ray Papich, 41, worked there as a 13-year-old after school.
“Combined, we have been here for 100 years,” Winieckie said. “We’ll never be out of business — as long as we do what we do.”
Competitors come and go
When Domino’s opened on Ponce de Leon Boulevard just across U.S. 1, a manager from there stopped by and predicted the place would be closed in months. That was in 1972.
“We have been on the same block longer than all our neighbors combined,” Winieckie said.
What is the secret? Well, the sauce — the aroma invades your senses as you walk in the door — is a favorite among UM students and alumni. And the cheese — a combination of mozzarella and Wisconsin Muenster — is also special, Winieckie said. And the beef and sausage are bought fresh from the butcher and cooked in the pizza ovens, he said.
“There are no scales here, no quota. You can order it and watch as we make it,” he said. “That’s why we’re still here. We’re not expensive, but we’re not cheap. And we don’t need any gimmicks. We don’t give away pizzas.”
Winieckie said dozens of people eat there every week — sometimes two or three times.
Frank Hildebrandt has gotten a pepperoni and bacon pizza every weekend — for the last 25 years. “They give you plenty of cheese. They give you plenty of whatever you order on the pizza. They just pile it on,” said Hildebrandt, a Pinecrest resident who wouldn’t think of going any place closer.
“Why go somewhere else when you’ve got something so good?” He even walks in through the back door now. That’s part of the atmosphere at Miami’s Best.
Regulars — like ‘Cheers’
The regulars and employees feel like part of one happy family. Many of them are. Several employees have married after meeting there. Winieckie’s sister, Eve, married Butler.
Jimmy Glaze, 22, said it’s like a home away from home. He started working there five years ago, when a former girlfriend got him the job. His current girlfriend works there. So did his best friend and the best friend’s wife. His roommate works there now.
“And our best friend from seventh grade is working here,” Glaze said. “We go on trips together, have parties.” They take care of each other’s children.
“It’s kind of like ‘Cheers,’” said Papich, referring to the popular TV show about a Boston bar. “It’s the place to go. We all know everybody’s names. We’re a landmark.”
Said Winieckie: “It’s an institution.”
Venerable Pizza Parlor competes with the Chains
Published Dec. 4, 1996
Like the ‘70s-era posters fading on the wall, the pie makers in the kitchen and a core of customers at the viewing window have aged but stuck around this little pizza joint in Coral Gables. The two guys piling cheese and pepperoni on hand-spun dough have practiced their culinary art at Miami’s Best Pizza, formerly Little Caesar’s, for a combined 37 years.
On long benches, three generations of the Iglesias family chow down as they often have in the past 16 years.
“It’s the sauce that makes the pizza so good,” says Rene Iglesias, 15, dining with his sisters, cousins, parents, grandparents and aunt.
Rock and pop culture posters
Once a booming college hangout across U.S. 1 from the University of Miami — hence the Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Marlin Brando posters — Miami’s Best Pizza, at 1514 S. Dixie Hwy., has managed to survive the loss of the campus crowd by serving the same loaded pies to many of the same customers who were college kids 20 years ago.
Many other nearby food nooks — LB’s, Oscar’s Subs, Pizza Hut and the cherished Velvet Creme Doughnuts — have recently closed their doors.
At UM, as at many colleges across the nation, students can wallow in fast-food choices right on campus and are deluged by discount deals from pizza delivery chains like Domino’s.
Miami’s Best Pizza has evolved largely by staying the same.
“We’ve survived because of the pizza, period,” said Thelvius “Thad” Winieckie, 33, Miami’s Best manager.
When MBP was Little Caesar’s
In 1970, it was the first Little Caesar’s franchise in Florida. The Detroit-based chain was developing pizza joints near college campuses —with stucco walls, archways and Medieval-looking iron chandeliers.
The pizzas were made fresh — no pre-cut pepperoni. No water in the crushed tomatoes. Muenster cheese was mixed with mozzarella for a heavy, rich pie.
Peter “Big Al” Papich, a one-time UM football player sick of selling Cadillacs in Detroit, moved back to the Gables to open the store under a 20-year franchise agreement. It was the only pizza place around; sales reached $500,000 a year.
His son, Raymond Papich, now owns the place with Charles Butler, who first managed Little Caesar’s in 1972.
Butler married one of the employees, the sister of Winieckie, who has worked on and off at Miami’s Best since 1981.
Sales started to slow in the ‘80s as the delivery pizza chains popped up and as college kids’ habits changed.
In 1975, Little Caesar’s delivered about 100 pizzas to UM on a Friday night. “Now we do about 10,” Winieckie said.
As the Little Caesar’s chain grew, new units arrived in South Florida. But they looked and acted and tasted nothing like the older Little Caesar’s near UM.
The chain “did their thing and we did ours. In the end, it was different,” Winieckie said.
MBP name change
In 1990, the franchise agreement expired, and Miami’s Best Pizza was born — same pizza, same place, same people.
By 1994-95, annual sales had dipped to $348,000, with a $6,000 loss, despite the loyalty of longtime customers like John Burke, 42. He was introduced to the pizza when he picked up a hitchhiking Butler in the early ‘70s.
Burke, a Florida Power & Light lineman, used to pick up two pizzas at midnight, on his way to a graveyard shift in the field.
“My kids grew up watching those guys make pizzas. They had a ball,” said Burke, whose kids are now 13 and 10. “We’ve got all the pizza places rated. Miami’s Best is No. 1. They always pile it on, and the ingredients are fresh.”
In January 1995, Winieckie was hired as manager and decided to make some changes. He focused on increasing deliveries to 30 percent of all orders, and added spaghetti, salad, garlic rolls, and dessert to the menu.
In 1995-96, sales were up to $484,000, with a $19,000 profit.
Ray Papich, 38, sometimes feels nostalgic flipping pizzas into his four-tiered revolving brick oven, a relic. He was 12 when he first stood inside his father’s 2,000-square-foot store.
“I have a lot of pride in what I do,” said Papich as he rolled out dough for some delivery orders. “We’ve never had to borrow money, we’ve never taken out loans. Nowadays the thing you can be happy for in business is to stay afloat, get your bills paid and maybe make a little money.”