111 Chelsea Street, East Boston, MA 02128 (map); 617-567-9871; santarpiospizza.com
Pizza style: Thin-crust; toppings on the lower deck
Oven type: Gas oven
The skinny: Old school pizzeria serving course cornmeal dusted pies cooked well done and dressed in reverse: toppings, sauce, cheese.
Price: Italian Cheese, Sausage and Hot Peppers, $13.50; Italian Cheese with Garlic, $10.50; Trio of Meats, $19
You can't discuss pizza in Boston without Santarpio's Pizza coming up. Sitting in the shadow of Logan airport, the East Boston pizzeria is one of the first landmarks travelers see coming into Boston. The fourth-generation family run business is more than just a place to get a pie, it's an institution. And it maintains that status because it captures part of the city's spirit in a genuine and irreplaceable way.
The island of East Boston has no bridges connecting it to the city, only tunnels. That's relevant because the gentrification that has transformed other traditionally Italian-American neighborhoods in the city, like the North End (where rival, Pizzeria Regina, is located) hasn't really touched Eastie. Even though the distance between the island to the east and the mainland isn't so great, it's a wicked pain in the ass to get to. So most of the patrons in Santarpio's belong to the old man neighborhood set. And that's good because it's a large part of what makes the experience.
Santarpio's started serving pizza in 1933. For the thirty years preceding that, it was a bakery. Today they focus strictly on pizza, bread, and barbecue. Metal skewers threaded with lamb, sausage, and steak tips sizzle atop a table-sized grill grate, just to the right of the entrance, announcing the prominence and manner of barbecue they serve. Eastie regulars fill the bar stools finding all the entertainment they need in the grill works and bar talk. 'Tarps, as it more familiarly called, is old school to the core and there isn't a TV in sight (though I suspect they must have some arrangement for showing big sporting events).
As a neighborhood outsider, Santarpio's sort of expects you to play by their rules. Walking in and looking lost will earn you no points. There is no room for hesitancy here. The servers view menus as optional, and if you are lucky enough to get your paws on some, don't think you can go hogging them for too long. (Ours were passed on to another table by our waiter before we placed an order. But to be fair, we had been holding one apiece for at least five minutes.) But that's the Santarpio's experience, and if it's not your idea of a good time, then beat it, right?
Even though we were there for pizza, the meats were a must. The homemade sausages, seasoned with black pepper to the point of becoming floral, and lamb skewers were the favorites over the tougher, chewier sirloin tips which were dominated by char flavor from the grill. The meats all come accompanied with hunks of bread and pickled hot cherry peppers. To wash that all down, my Bottom Shelf dining companion did his dinner-earning research and discovered the $11 carafe offered at Santarpio's. High marks for cheap, drinkable wine.
Good sausage and cherry peppers is one of my favorite topping combinations. There can't be a better place to order that pie than in an establishment that has a grill full of sizzling meat to welcome you and then plates their meat with cherry peppers. Oddly, of all the pizza combinations on the menu; which are all some combination of Italian cheese, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, onions, hot peppers, and garlic, there is not an Italian Cheese and Hot Pepper combo. But for an extra two bucks, you can add hots to an Italian Cheese and Sausage pizza ($11.50), no problem.
One thing to know about the Santarpio method of pizza-making is that they build their pies with the toppings on bottom. That method helps to soften the cherry peppers, which when uncooked were on the hard side. It also seemed to help the sausage hold its juices. The sausage, by the way was better on the pie than it was off, and it was pretty delicious as a stand alone. They also top haphazardly. (See oregano distribution on the cheese and pizza.)
The sauce they use is pretty straightforward. It's a cooked sauce, which can run the risk of developing tinny or metallic overtones when cooked too hard or long. This doesn't happen at Santarpio's, but there isn't anything particularly memorable about it either. The crust, however, is memorable.
This is the part of the Santarpio's Pizza fanaticism that I can't make heads or tails of. I understand that people in Boston, especially those that have developed an affinity for a style of pizza outside of what is prevalent in the Bay State— namely Greek, are starved for thin crust. To that end, Santarpio's delivers. But the crust on our pies was tough. A sturdy bottom is a plus in my book, but not at the expense of becoming leathery. The bottoms were also dusted with a course grind cornmeal, causing the pies to have a grit to them. The interior of the end crust, however, evidenced elasticity, it was just overshadowed by the crunch of the well-done exterior.
It is a good thing the thin crusts are sturdy, because they have to carry the bulk of all that Italian cheese. That may be slightly overstated. The cheese wasn't off the chain, but it was more than I care for. I think this goes back to the family way of doing things.
I read somewhere that Frank Santarpio cooks his pies well-done because that's how he likes them. Santarpio's has its own style and they're not really about making exceptions. A lot of people really love exactly what they do and wouldn't want it to be different. I think that this is a case of a pizza place that has captured the spirit of the community that it's in. And the pies are definitely original. While I would encourage anyone that goes to try the Italian cheese, sausage, and hot pepper combo, if crust is your thing, then Santarpio's may not be your place. Unless your love for old men bars outweighs your love for crust, in which case it definitely is your place.