Boston: Pizzeria Regina, The Original
11 1/2 Thatcher St. Boston, MA 10002 (map); pizzeriaregina.com
Pizza style: Thin crust pizza, with a crunchy, crisp exterior and tender crumb
Oven type: Brick oven from 1888
The skinny: Skip the topping laden pies and stick with a classic cheese for the ultimate Regina's experience.
Price: Cheese 10-inch, $8.75, Margherita 10-inch, $10.99 , Sausage Caciatore 10-inch, $11.99
Bostonians have been calling the North End home longer than any other neighborhood in the city. Colonists first started setting down their roots there in 1630. So it should come as no surprise that one of the oldest operating ovens is situated in the compact winding streets of Boston's "Little Italy". The brick oven at Pizzeria Regina on Thacher Street was built in 1888, but has been used exclusively for firing pizzas since 1926, and under the proprietary control of the Polcari family for three generation. That makes Regina the oldest pizzeria in the city, and at the top of the list for oldest in the country.
The Regina's empire now includes 22 locations that range from sit down restaurants to food court outlets. However, despite the company line that they maintain absolute product consistency across all their stores, many claim that none of the satellites can hold a candle to the original. And it's for that reason that locals and tourists alike flock to the original North End location.
On any given day, even a week night in August (as I recently found out), a line out the door and down the block is not an uncommon sight at Regina's. For the tourists, Regina's offers a real Boston experience, in a Little Italy setting where you actually hear Italian being shouted out by old men on opposite street corners, and there is a concentration of restaurants and cafes that is more like a European neighborhood than an American one. And while Boston houses two of the oldest pizzerias in the country, the lack of real pizza culture and pizza identity means that locals divide up family pizza night between Regina's and longstanding rival, Santarpio's (reviewed here). In order to understand what Boston pizza looks like, beyond the multitude of mediocre Greek pizzerias carrying the "house of" moniker, a trip to Regina's is a must.
The crusts here are thin, but not New York slice joint thin. At its puffiest points, the end crust lift is under an inch high. Regina's antique gas-fueled oven* burns between 800-900 degrees, contributing to the extra crisp exterior. From tip to end, the bottom of the slice is sturdy and stiff, like it's standing at attention. The pies can handle any manner of toppings—which I know since I put these crusts to the test by ordering the Sausage Caciatore.
*The oven was originally fueled by coal, but had to be changed to gas in accordance with city code.
Regina's makes their own sausage. It's rife with fennel flavor, and despite being served on the pies in slices (which usually results in pork that's dried out), rather than crumbled, it maintains its moisture. In addition to the house sausage, the Caciatore comes with onion and bell peppers. I typically avoid bell peppers on pie because they tend to override the other flavors. But on recommendation of our waitress to try the Caciatore, I looked at it as a good opportunity to see how the other components would fair alongside the peppers. Sliced thick, the vegetables were too watery and added too much weight, so it only served to confirm my reasons for avoiding bell peppers on pies. Next time I want sausage on a pie at Regina's, I'll stick with a straight sausage pie.
Margheritas aren't really meant to be ordered at places like Regina's. Instead of getting pools of fresh mozzarella, you will end up with pies blanketed in the aged, shredded version. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. All I am saying is, save the Margherita for a Neapolitan place. It's not a pizza parlor pie, in my opinion. Getting a little fresh basil is great, but a deeper soul satisfying gratification comes from ordering the right pie at the right place. In the case of Regina's, that's a straight up cheese.
In the whole pie category, Regina's makes my favorite cheese pizza in Boston. What makes it so great? The cheese highlights the best of what Regina's has going on. The crust is all about the texture, stiff and crisp, with a nice tender interior and subtle wheaty flavor. Sitting atop of that is a perfectly melded fusion of sauce and cheese. They achieve this pizza alchemy by mixing Romano into the sauce, instead of sprinkling it on top. The result is added tang and bite to their already vibrant, fresh sauce, and the smooth, creamy texture of whole milk mozzarella cheese, instead of the leathery top that could form if the Romano was reserved to add at the end.
Pizzeria Regina's is proud of the fact that they are Boston's original pizzeria, and in turn Boston should be proud to be home to a place like Regina's. Although I didn't cut my pizza teeth on their pies, if I were to pick one pizzeria to be Boston's pizza poster child, I'd say Regina's would be the number one contender.