On a chilly Saturday evening in November, FEEP Jr (Fellow Enthusiast for Eating Pizza) and I scouted out the premier pizza offerings in the greater Boston region. Because she is stationed at Tufts, we had previously eaten some hip-style grilled pizza at Cambridge 1 (review here). This time, we had more energy to drive into Boston, contend with parking issues, and eat some legacy pie.
Thanks to the great research by the pizza experts over at Slice – Seriouseats, I had narrowed the choices to the legendary Regina Pizza and Santarpio’s, of East Boston. Regina’s is now a chain, and most critics say that only the flagship store makes the top-notch pie. The place is popular with both locals and tourists, with “lines stretching down the block.” That was enough to point us to Santarpio’s.
I don’t know Boston very well, so we let the GPS guide us from my hotel in Revere. It took us though some narrow streets with stop signs instead of traffic lights, through neighborhoods sporting lots of interesting restaurants and food stores, some Latin bodegas and some Italian delis. It had the look and feel of the Italian neighborhoods in South Philly and the Chambersburg section of Trenton.
Santarpio’s, 111 Chelsea St, is on a corner with little other active evening commerce. We parked under an elevated highway, in the eerie glow of a mercury vapor lamp. The street was quiet except for a few people exiting Santarpio’s. The tenor changed instantly as we walked inside to a warmly bustling scene. We were greeted (in a gruff but friendly way) by a stout gentleman behind a counter nearest the door. He seemed to have double duty as both greeter and the bread-and-peppers guy (more on those later).
The place was nearly packed, but we were quickly seated at one of the few open tables. It’s a big place, by pizzeria standards, with two large rooms that I could see, each with some vintage paneling. Santarpio’s has two basic specialties – the pizza, and the “barbecue” which offers three different varieties of grilled meats: lamb, steak tips, or sausage, each served with hot cherry peppers and fresh baked Italian bread.
We decided that we needed to try both the pie and the meats, and then have some to take home. We ordered the steak tips to begin (with my $4 bottle of Rolling Rock) and a pie with garlic and sausage. To go, I ordered a pie that was half sausage, half pepperoni. They make their own sausage and it’s known to be pepper-spicy.
The steak tips ($7) came out first, and we got about six lovely charred and juicy tender chunks, with a generous hunk of really good Italian bread, and 3 cherry peppers. The steak had a wonderful flavor in addition to its texture. The peppers were pretty hot, but I ate 2 of the three (FEEP Jr. can’t take the heat). It was so good that I neglected to take a picture until we were about half-way through.
The pizza arrived soon after. It is probably the least expensive pizza I’ve seen in any place that has a national reputation. The plain cheese pie is not big – maybe a 14” pie – but it’s only $9.50. The only comparable bargain would be Lee’s Tavern in Staten Island (our review here) which is wonderful stuff but not very well known to folks outside the neighborhood.
De rigueur for any destination pizza contender is the crust foundation. Santarpio is known for several things – the homemade sausage, refusal to bend from time-tested recipes and methods, and its sturdy crust. The crust was thin and, except in the center, rigid on this well-cooked (but not burnt) pie. The first bite of each slice was tasty but sloppy, because there was too much sauce in the center and it soaked into the crust. In fact, we ate most slices by cutting off the tip with knife and fork.
After that, the texture and crust, cheese, sauce, and toppings balance was close to perfect for the rest of the slice. The crust got better and better approaching the cornicione, a little thicker, a little chewier, and little crisper, a little denser. The last bite before the naked pizza bone was perfect, deeply satisfying and perhaps the most “al dente” crust I can recall, yet with an airiness from the inner air pockets.
Others have described the crust as “leathery” but we both found it delightful in its rugged texture. It you prefer the heel of a good loaf to a slice of white bread, you may appreciate the toothiness of this pizza crust.
The “Italian cheese” seemed unremarkable – a generous (but not overloaded) amount of what seemed like conventional dry mozzarella, probably mixed with something more flavorful. Aged provolone? I don’t know what it was, good cheese or the excellent browning it got, but this cheese had a rich, savory flavor. It was more than a role player; perhaps a co-star.
The sauce –was a deep rich and intensely flavored gravy that spoke not of fresh vine tomatoes, but of canned tomato products simmered all day with Italian seasoning. As I noted before, there was too much of it in the center of the pie. I appreciated its rich flavor, but the ingredients were out of balance there in the center, and hence the texture. Certainly, though, this is a small quibble, because I loved this pizza.
The sauce was earthy and flavorful as noted; it was also very salty. I like salt. I like salt too much, and I usually salt my pizza. But this sauce was salty enough that I added none. Some might find it too salty, but for me, the tastiest foods are based on fat and salt. Slab it on a crusty base and it's hard to go wrong.
Beyond the surplus of sauce in the center, the other flaw in this pie was the garlic. We loved it, but I could detect the slightly off sour taste of peeled garlic from a jar. Whatever is added to preserve it does a disservice to the taste. I use it at home for the convenience, but you lose the snap of fresh garlic and you introduce that unwelcome sourness. Pizza this good deserves real, fresh garlic.
The firm crust and salty sauce immediately bring to mind another favorite of mine – Denino’s in Staten Island. Denino’s also features an old-time feel with a big crowd of happy regulars. Theirs is an awesome pie, but due to the superb texture, Santarpio’s may be better.
The total bill, with tax before tip, came to $37.50 for two pizzas, one beer, and the steak tips. Incredible bargain. The to-go pie came perched on a cardboard disk, covered with a wax paper top, then wrapped in a waxy brown bag. It sat in my trunk that chilly night, and then for about a total of 24 hours as I drove home to Pennsylvania.
That night, I heated up the sausage/pepperoni pie to enjoy with EPBAC (Eats Pizza But Avoids Cheese). I baked it at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then switched over to broil for a few minutes until the cheese began to bubble. And – it was better than the night before! Why? For one, it didn’t have the processed garlic, but more importantly, the re-heat finished with some broiler time was able to dry out that over-sauced condition.
How does it all stack up? Not everybody loves this down-and-dirty kind of place, but I give the ambiance a 9.5. The “barbecue” is a solid 9. The crust is a 10. It really sits right up there with Trenton’s Papa’s Tomato Pies and the legendary DeLorenzo’s, even though its character is quite different. The sauce is an 8.5 – the salt does its magic for this old-school gravy approach. The cheese is 9.5. I can’t put my finger on what about it tastes so good, but I will take this every day over a wet blob of bland bufalo mozz. Overall, let’s call this pie a 9.25. It’s destination pie, it’s an astonishing bargain, and it may end up in my very crowded Top Ten.