Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza, a Time Machine in Elizabeth, New Jersey
The phone rings at Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza and Al Santillo Jr., third-generation bread-baker and pizza-maker, picks up. "Yeah? The usual? OK. How's your mother? OK. See you soon."
Hidden down an alleyway between two houses in a sleepy section of Elizabeth, it's just the kind of place you'd expect that kind of exchange to happen. Santillo's is a certifiably old-school New Jersey pizzeria. Al says he's been working at Santillo's since he was 5 — he's now 54.
But old school doesn't mean the place has ossified. In fact, the menu is more or less always in flux — and that may be the thing Santillo's is best known for here on this site. Al Santillo's menu is a veritable timeline of pizza styles.
There's the 1959, the 1964, the 1967, among others — all of which I was lucky to see Al make when I visited recently. Each year-name pizza represents a style or technique that was popular then.
Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza
639 South Broad Street, Elizabeth NJ 07202 (map); 908-354-1887; website
Getting there: Your best option, obviously, is to drive there, but if you want to visit from NYC, you can take the 115 NJTransit bus from Port Authority
Pizza style: Old-school New Jersey
Oven type: Massive 14-by-20-foot brick oven that was once fueled by coal, now by gas
The skinny: Al Santillo and his pizzeria? A living treasure. If you're a fan of fancy-pants pizza, this probably isn't your place. But if you like old-fashioned American-style pizzeria pizza, you'll have a veritable "timeline" of pizzas to choose from — 1940-style pizza, 1957, 1962, etc.
Price: Plain pies, both round and Sicilian, $9 (small round) to $18 (XL Sicilian)
The 1964 (above), for instance, gets a pour of olive oil before going into the oven. "See that oil, movin' around on there?" Al says as he tilts the pizza and golden-brown rivulets start making their way to the edge. "That used to be desirable. In 1964." The 1967, which I would later try, lets you "see some red," meaning that Santillo takes a lighter hand with the cheese.
While I don't think I'd enjoy it as a pizza, my favorite year and corresponding description is the 1990 ("Soft and thin crust — 'American-style'"). "A lot of people come in wanting pizza on the mushy side. So I made the 1990. I can't take pride in it as a baker, but I try to give the customers what they want."
I kind of cringe when I think of the '90s, so I think this pizza is pretty aptly named. I much prefer Al's crisper pizzas, made the way he says pizza should be made.
But even if you don't have a particular vintage in mind, the standard round and Sicilian pies are good too, with the cheese just this side of being burned. It takes on that sort of chewy, crisp texture and almost-caramelized flavor.
Santillo cooks all his pies in a massive brick oven, 20 feet deep and 14 feet wide, that was once fueled by coal but now runs on gas. "The fuel source doesn't matter," he says. "As long as it's a good, even heat." But, he says, he's got some coal in storage and an old heavy shovel.
"If anyone wants to come down and shovel coal in for me, I'll cook 'em some pies with it."
Explaining how, like any oven, it has its hot spots and colder spots, Al grabs a long-handled peel from above his head and moves the pies around — one to cool down a bit and cook slowly, another to crisp up the bottom before going into a delivery box.
Al stretches his dough ahead of time and keeps the skins in a dough cabinet on boards dusted with a cornmeal-semolina. When an order comes up, he quickly sauces and cheeses it and gets it in the oven. For the most part, he says, it's a dough made that day, but some customers know to ask for an aged dough that's a day or two old. "If I've got it, I'll make 'em one with it. Depends on what I've got left for the day."
I ordered a 1967 Pop's Style, which lets you "see some red" — there's a little less cheese on it than usual. I know Al reads Slice, but I didn't get the feeling he knew what my favorite topping was — still, he just added some chunked, fennel-spiked sausage to half the pie like it wasn't even a question.
I'm glad he did. It's some amazing sausage. "I get it from a guy in the neighborhood," he says. "I know what he does, how he makes it. That's very important to me, that I know what goes into my pizza."
I think you could write a book about Al and his pizzeria. But I'm going to sign off here. You can peek through the slideshow above if you want to check out more photos. I took so many I needed to do something with the outtakes.