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Master Pizzamakers: Richie Zapata of Pizzeria Regina

Photo: Cal Bingham

Pizzeria Regina, aka Regina Pizzeria, Pizza Regina and Regina Pizza, as the sign still says, is largely considered the reigning champ among Boston pizzerias thanks in part to Richie Zapata, a supervisor and pizzamaker who's been with the company for 16 years and has been making pizza in Boston for forty years. "This place is a very special, iconic store in the city. I take pride in it like I own it," he says. "I grew up here, my family is from around here, I'm a neighborhood guy, so it's really special to work here." Eater spoke with Zapata for the Master Pizzamakers interview series as part of the first ever Pizza Week.

How long have you been at Regina? In 1996 I started to work here.

Were you always a pizzamaker? What happened was there was an ad in the paper for a manager and I called them - I was switching jobs - and they said there's an opening in the North End, but you have to make pizza of course. So I went in and I made a pizza and they said okay, you're hired, and the rest is history, I guess.

Where did you learn to make pizza? My cousin had a pizza place on Newbury Street in 1972. I was only 12 at the time, and my grandmother said to me, your cousin wants you to work for him three hours a day, do you want to go do it? It was two dollars an hour and I had to take a train from Medford that took me about 45 minutes to get there to make six bucks. When I was 12 years old, I made myself $50 under the table, which was good at 12 years old, but I guess you couldn't do that today. But in '72, I did it. The reason why he let me work in the afternoons is he wanted to go and have a drink across the street, so he left me alone in the store, and I had to do what I had to do and learned from that. I learned responsibility I guess and I learned how to handle the pressure starting right there.

Your pizzas are famous. What makes them special? We've been here since 1926. We have the same recipe. We age our cheese, they pick their own tomatoes and they have them canned special for the Pizza Regina. Our cheese is bought in bulk specially for the Pizza Regina. The original oven here is from 1888, but for all our recipes, we have a certain commissary in Charlestown which makes all our dough, they age the cheese, and we get the sauce from them. It's the original recipe and it's consistent throughout the whole company. Everybody says the pizza in the North End is different. It's not, though. It's the same. If you go to Medford or Allston or wherever and you say you want a Pizzeria Regina pizza, and if you say I want it like the North End, well what's that? They'll ask you if you want it well done, if you want it thin, if you want it light, some people like it raw almost. Burnt, black. Some people like to put semolina in the plate and dip the black semolina in the pizza. It's strange, but the whole consistency of the product throughout the company is what makes us special. It's the same.

There's nothing different? The only difference is that it's the original oven from 1888, everything else is the exact same. Here's the thing, too. If you eat in the Prudential food court and you eat in the North End Regina, the ambiance is different. Maybe it tastes different in your mind. Listen, if I ate at Abe & Louie's, and I ate their steak in the Prudential food court, I wouldn't think it's as good as if I sat in there.

Are the people who come in mostly locals or tourists? We have a few locals that come in, but most of the North End store is a tourist base, and we have tourists from all over the state, all over the United States, and all over the world.

What are their reactions like? The majority of the reactions are that they love it. If you don't know anything about the place and you read about it online and you get here and it's a July night and you go the door and you see a line halfway down the block, you're going to say 'I'm not going to go in there.' But there's a reason why people wait to get in, and we move it quickly.

What's the most popular pizza? Cheese. Pepperoni. All the products we have are good. If you want extra, we have so many different varieties. If you're an old timer or a regular, you're basically going to have a simple pizza, you're going to have maybe a pepperoni, maybe anchovy, or cheese, and just make it small and well done. You can enjoy the original taste of it. I think when you get it, especially the first time, it should be simple, so you can enjoy the dough, the sauce and the cheese together.

How have things changes since you started? The pizza is the same, maybe we have a little more variety from when we first started. The neighborhood has changed a lot. When I was a little kid my grandmother paid thirty dollars a month for a sixth level apartment, and I remember the landlady saying 'I have to go up three bucks in your rent, you think you could handle that?' Now you'd pay two grand a month for the same apartment. But it's still a special place. The core of the people that are still here in the North End, we watch each other all the time, we have each other's backs, so we've been able to keep that special feeling that we had when we were little. All the smells and what have you, make it a special place.

· All coverage of Pizza Week [~EBOS~]

Regina Pizzeria

11 1/2 Thacher Street, Boston, MA