Behind the Slice: Not-Quite-Vanishing History at Santillo's Brick-Oven Pizza

Me with Al Santillo Jr.

[Photographs: Adam Kuban]

I've known about Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza for a few years now but shamefully had not visited it until this week. It's known (if it's known at all among a wider audience) for the fact that Al Santillo Jr. arranges a portion of his menu by year.

That is, folks come in, tell Al, "Your dad used to make it like this," and Al will try to re-create it, naming it for the year the customer says he or she remembered it from.

But all that's on my review on Slice »

When I visited Al on Wednesday, the first thing he told me was that he was experimenting with water. His daughter had brought him a five-gallon jug of NYC tap water, and Al was making his bread and some pizzas from it.

On his computer he had some sort of website or an EPA report detailing the mineral profile of New York City's water. In the end, Al seemed to prefer his own New Jersey water to NYC's. I could barely taste the difference, but that's OK. By the time I walked in Al himself seemed to have forgotten which loaf was which.

Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza, Elizabeth, New Jersey

Having met Al briefly at a canned-tomato tasting, I knew he was driven by his own curiosity and a desire to perfect his pizzas. I also suspected that any visit to Santillo's on my part would not be a short one. But, hey, I'm not complaining.

Square Pie, Santillo's

I got to watch Al make a number of round and square pies in a number of different styles. Folks from the neighborhood and beyond called in orders and stopped by, all of them sort of giving me puzzled looks — who's this weirdo with a big ol' camera dogging Al?

Scale for Weighing Dough, Santillo's

Between orders, Al would show me a different part of his operation. First he took me into the back of the shop, where he mixes the dough in a gigantic Hobart mixer, using an ancient-looking scale to portion it out. There are timeworn wood proofing boxes back there — the kind old-school pizzamakers prefer because they help wick away moisture from the dough during proofing — so less bench flour is needed later.

Then Al took me the the way back of the shop and dug out some bricks from his pizza oven that he keeps in 10-inch pizza boxes. He sells them for $30 each, but it didn't seem like he had that many takers. He gave me both an old and new brick to try, telling me I could send him the money if I liked the bricks or return them if I didn't.

These things must weigh 20 pounds each — there's no way I'm schlepping them back out to Elizabeth, New Jersey, if I don't like them! Guess I should write Al a check now.

Eventually, Al led me out to the garage behind the pizzeria. It's chockablock with so much old-time pizzeria gear that I doubt Al even knows what half of it is. Long-ass pizza peels, more bricks in various states of repair, coal shovels from the days when Santillo's was a coal-oven pizzeria. Al says he could still fire the oven with coal — he just doesn't want to have to shovel it anymore. "If you or your friends want to come out here and shovel it, I'll cook with coal one day."

He said that half jokingly, but I actually kind of think he means it. Anyone else up for it?