The most popular pizza is not always the best pizza. But when North End natives start lining up at ten-thirty in the morning—before the shop even opens—that slice is going to be pretty damn good.
Conversations about Boston pizza generally revolve around a few major contenders—Pizzeria Regina in the North End, thin-crust pies from Santarpio's in East Boston, fancy-pants pizza from Emma’s, Picco, or Todd English's Figs.
But these whole-pie debates ignore the humble, hefty Sicilian slice—which, at Galleria Umberto, is the only pizza you’ll find. Recently named one of Alan Richman’s Top 25 pizzerias in America, Umberto easily disappears into the Hanover Street brickwork. Neither its unadored storefront or its sign ("Galleria Umberto Rosticceria") hint at the pizza waiting within.
Open Mondays through Saturdays, Galleria Umberto slings slices only from 11:00 AM until the dough runs out (before mid-afternoon, earlier on the weekends). Their cavernous space makes the lines look deceptively manageable; a lunchtime visitor could easily wait upwards of thirty minutes for a slice to go. But with the drama behind the counter, the time disappears. The staff run between the register and the food display, sliding effortlessly between English and Italian, pausing only to kiss or shake hands with a regular customer. Pizza flies out from the kitchen, enormous pans appearing every three or four minutes, smacked down on the counter, slices scooped up so quickly the cheese hardly has time to ooze over the side.
The menu is simple and cheap. Plain Sicilian slices ($1.45), stuffed risotto arancini ($2.75), fried potato panzarotti ($1.35). Panini, a few calzone. (Plus wine, beer, and soda.) That’s all. It’s all fresh, and it’s all worth eating.
Neapolitan pizzas are characterized by restraint: thin crust, carefully portioned sauce, graceful dabs of mozzarella. But Sicilians don't do restraint. These slices are smothered in blood-red sauce, with a crust that threatens to spill over the pan’s edges, with cheese that actually does. Pools of oil quiver in the grooves between slices. If you get a slice to go—tied up in a neat white box—the grease will soak right through the cardboard. If that box is in a paper bag, it'll soak through that, too. If this troubles you, this is not your kind of pizza.
Yet as imposing as it looks, each slice is surprisingly light. Sicilian pizza often suffers from a dense, dry breadiness that makes getting through a single cut a burden. But Umberto's crust is fluffy, like an airier focaccia—not heavy in the slightest. It's moistened further by a fresh, herb-laden sauce. The cheese bubbles and browns, charred on the edges, melty and crispy all at once. Getting cheese to this stage often means a dried-out crust, but not here.
Fist-sized arancini, fried balls of risotto, are golden brown but not a bit greasy. Each bite yields still-firm rice, oozing sharp cheese, and a ground beef center as meaty as Nonna’s ragu.
Panzarotti resemble giant rosemary-studded tater tots, made even better with real potato texture and a gooey mozzarella center.
Also popular are the calzone and two-dollar panini. At these prices, a normal eater could easily fill up for under five dollars. It’s hard to even conceptualize eating your way through ten. And if you’re still hungry, Mike’s and Modern are just a few paces away.
Galleria Umberto serves the kind of food that’s only good fresh from the kitchen. After half an hour, the grease might cool, the edges might toughen; the fried foods have a shelf life of about ten minutes. But that’s the beauty of Umberto—the food is always fresh from the kitchen. Other pizzerias have off-hours, or at least off-minutes, when no one’s buying a slice. Umberto opens to a crowd, cranks out the pies, and doesn't let up 'til the dough runs out. And the freshest pizza is always the best pizza.
289 Hanover Street, Boston MA 02113 (map)