It seems that now more than ever restaurants are trying their hardest to make sure their waitstaffs are as efficient, engaging, and friendly as possible in order to make for a pleasant overall dining experience for customers. Sometimes, however, you just want to be totally ranked on when you go out to eat—well, perhaps not ranked on, but perhaps you want a “real” experience that includes some true Boston flavor from the folks who work at a particular dining or drinking spot. And in the case of Santarpio’s, a century-old pizzeria in the shadows of the McClellan Highway in East Boston, customers indeed get a heavy dose of flavor both from the pizza and the servers, making it a must for thick-skinned diners who enjoy thin-crust pies.
Santarpio’s first started out around the turn of the century—the 20th century, that is—and hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years; here you will find the obligatory fake wood paneling along with too-bright lights, a jukebox that has its fair share of Sinatra and Tony Bennett, a long bar that is partitioned off from an equally long dining area that opens up a bit in the back, and a side room that at times has more of the feel of a social club than a restaurant dining room. The waitstaff at the establishment is—how should we say this?—extremely colorful, with personalities ranging from sour to gruff to polite to charming to bombastic, which sometimes gives the place a dinner theater vibe even though much of what you see is definitely not staged. One note about Santarpio’s—never, EVER ask what kinds of pasta they have. If you do, be prepared for an eyeroll, the word “none” barked out, or even a “What’s the matter with you?” depending on the exact situation.
One of the interesting things about the pizza at Santarpio’s is the fact that no one really knows how to categorize it. Is it bar pizza? Nope. Neapolitan thin-crust? Not exactly. Greek? No way. Gourmet? Please. Sicilian? No, but that’s an interesting one. Santarpio’s pizza is sauce heavy, and it is not unlike the classic tomato pies found in Trenton, NJ, that are typically made by putting the cheese on before the sauce (and in the case of Santarpio’s, the toppings are added before the sauce as well) and adding cornmeal to the bottom for extra flavor and texture. This type of thin-crust tomato pie is an offshoot of the old-world Sicilian tomato pies still found in some parts of the Boston area—the squares found at Milano’s Delicatessen come to mind—with the main difference being that the Sicilian pies have a very thick crust and the Trenton-style pizzas—and those found at Santarpio’s—have a very thin crust. No matter how you categorize Santarpio’s pizzas, the bottom line is they are considered by many to be one of the best—if not the best—pizzas in the entire Boston area, with some saying that they could be the best in New England. By the way, for those who want something other than (or in addition to) pizza, a few mixed grill items are offered, including good takes on steak tips, lamb skewers, house-made sausage, and hot cherry peppers, while drinks include a handful of basic beers and wines.
Santarpio’s may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want a true “Boston” experience, it is tough to beat this gritty old joint just west of Logan Airport. The staff might not greet you with open arms or huge smiles (unless you try to order pasta), which is refreshing in an odd sort of way, and if you’re into unique types of pizza, you’d be hard-pressed to find pies like these anywhere east of Jersey.
[Please note that Santarpio’s in East Boston is cash only; a second location in Peabody does take credit cards.]
SANTARPIO’S PIZZA. 111 CHELSEA ST., EAST BOSTON. SANTARPIOSPIZZA.COM
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.