I had one of the best dinners tonight that I have ever had. Pizza at the 80 year old Santarpio's in Boston's East End.
This is a crusty old tavern with pictures of boxing greats all over the fading walls and Frank and the Temptations on the juke box. Just to the right of the door when you walk in is a walled in brick bbq pit alongside the ceramic tile charcoal pit used today for "bbq" which is succulently tender and smoky, flavorful chunks of lamb and homemade sausage served with Italian cherry peppers and incredibly crusty bread baked in the same oven as the pizza.
The pizza is far superior to anything here. So much better than Pizzaria Paradiso, Coppi's or any wood fired oven anywhere in the area. Originally Santarpio's had a coal oven in the 20's opening about the same time as New Haven's Pepe's and several years after the nearby Pizzaria Regina in the North End.
About thirty five years ago they stopped baking in the coal oven and started using a specially made German oven with five rotating platforms which bake using gas. The oven is really unusual (I've only seen one similar and that was at the original Giordano's in Chicago.) in that the pie bakes directly on the shelf and over time a "seasoning" has built up on each of these. Corn meal flecks the bottom of the thin crispy crust giving an additional slight crunch while also providing the kind of char that you normally would see in a coal oven like Pepe's, Sally's, John's or Totonno's. Pastene crushed tomatoes are used in place of a sauce. Like Sally's in New Haven the pizza maker runs the palm of his hand over the tomatoes on the pie, picking out any tough or gritty parts. Real mozzarella is used and grana parmegiano is freshly grated on top of this. Toppings are UNDERNEATH the cheese and tomatoes. A lot of olive oil also goes on last.
This is a great pie to eat plain. Sausage, the same that cooks on the charcoal pit, makes for a superb topping.
Santarpio's is on the same level as the New Haven greats. Fantastic pizza, incredibly flavorful but with real dimension, real crunch to the chewy crust. A crust so good that I want to eat the edges first not last or even overlook. Small mounds of tomatoes, pools of molten cheese.
What puts Santarpio's over the top and the reason why I believe this is, overall, my favorite pizzaria on earth (including several in Naples and Rome) is the ambience-there is a real personality here. Grimaldi's has this in Brooklyn, Sally's, too, of course. But this is special. Even when you order carryout you actually go INTO the kitchen to place the order and wait. Not more than five feet from the table where the dough is laid out. Back in the dining room one wall is covered with awards and reviews. The aroma of baking crust mingled with charring lamb and sausage on the front tiled pit, perhaps Frank or Smokey in the background, and waiters who say naturally, "Howya doing?"
There's nothing in D. C. like this. Nothing. The equal of Pepe's and Sally's for a pie, apizza. And a personality that is an American original.
When I left I told the pit man that I would be back in a year. And the year after that and the year after that.
An experience Washington will never know.
For those who travel into Boston Santarpio's is very close to Logan airport. When you come out of the tunnel, on the airport side, take your first right. Go one block and Santarpio's is on the right.
I brought back a pie, fully cooked. Four hours out of the oven it went back into our 450 degree oven for three minutes. Eighty per cent as good as Boston. Still better than anything in the D. C. area. In fact I'm going upstairs and eat the last slice right now.