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Richie Zapata on 18 Years at Regina Pizzeria

Welcome to a special Pizza Week edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.

[Photos: Katie Chudy]

Regina Pizzeria, specifically the original North End location, is one of the oldest pizza restaurants around. Regina's opened in 1926, and the oven and recipe are still the same even though the neighborhood has changed. Eater chatted with longtime supervisor Richie Zapata about this North End classic, which has spread to over 20 New England locations over the years.

When did you start working at Regina's?
I started in 1996 as a manager, and then I worked my way up to general manager. From there I became a supervisor, and I now supervise six units. I'm based here in the North End location and am here two to three days a week, sometimes more. It's a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. I love being here, and honestly I feel more at home here than I do at my actual house in Quincy.

What's a typical week like for you?
Usually at the beginning of the week, I visit all of my units, and I check out the product and address any issues or problems we have. Usually in the middle of the week I have meetings, and now there are three supervisors, and we're trying to get to everyone's stores to look at them with fresh eyes. Usually on the weekends I am in the North End location because it's busy, especially after Memorial Day when tourist season starts. It's fun when the tourists come because they stop in and still think it's a mom-and-pop type of place, and they ask us who Regina is. I like to make a joke and have fun with it. When you work here, you have to really interact with people and make sure they have a good time.

How has this neighborhood changed since you've been here?
In 1996, the neighborhood was a lot cheaper to live in. There's still a lot of the same families here, but it's gotten a lot more expensive. The old neighborhood is basically gone, and there's yuppies and college students that move in and live here. Everything is very touristy, too. But there's a lot of things that are still the same. The soul of the place is still here. Back when I started, there weren't many restaurants, but now there's so many. It's just all changed.

How has Regina's kept up with the times?
We are constantly trying to improve and get more modern but also still try and stay the same. It's tricky to figure out how to do that, but we've got 21 stores now.

How do you manage the quality?
We, the supervisors, do all of that. We have a commissary in Charlestown that makes all of our products. We just couldn't manage the quality if every store was doing it on their own. So we order everything from the commissary, and the supervisors of every store will work to maintain the quality of the product. That is the main thing that we do, protect the integrity of our product. If you come here once and then 20 years from now, we want the product to be the same. We do have the same product. There's a lot of people that say that the version that we have here in the North End is different, but it's not. It's the same product. Maybe the ambiance is a little different, but it's really just the same.

Has the recipe changed over time?
No. Absolutely not. Our toppings have changed, and we've added more of them, but the recipe is still the same. They have someone specially grow our tomatoes, and then we age our cheese, and we even age our dough. It's easy to come in, sit down, and just get pizza but there's a lot of work behind that.

I don't know which of the family members actually started the recipe, but it's been the same. The oven was built in 1888, and we have it serviced once a year on Easter. We have to take the front off, and someone crawls to the back and repairs the bricks. It's a really small opening that they have to crawl through. It's crazy to watch.

Let's talk about a certain East Boston pizza place. Is there really a rivalry between you and Santarpio's?
Santarpio's is good, but it's totally different. They put their sauce on top of the cheese. We had a food feud with them a couple of years back, and we won, and that was it. After we won the award, they were really pissed off and almost started a fight with us, right there in Faneuil Hall. They were really mad. They don't have as many locations as us; they have their one on Route 1, and I've heard it's not as good as the original. But I haven't been. They have an old oven, and they still have ripped seats and stuff. I honestly don't think there's still a rivalry; we both have great products, and the East Boston people will like Santarpio's, and our people will like us. That's how it's always been.

We have a reputation for being surly but it's certainly not the case. It's more of a show, and we try to control the chaos. We have to say things like "pahk the cah." I make people say "there's two seats at the bah" when they come in, and they get a kick out of it.

Any fun memories that you can share?
There's a lot of celebrities that come in here. The Red Sox, the Bruins come in here, movie stars come in. Kate Hudson, Jay Leno, and Rene Russo have all come in. At first it took some getting used to, but they're just people like you and me. I always ask for something, not for me but for the restaurant. You know, like a signed picture or something. Most of them are okay with it, but when Leonardo DiCaprio came in here the first time he didn't want to sign anything. He said it goes right to the internet, and he doesn't like it.

But then he was back — the Celtics were playing the Lakers — and I told him that he forgot about that picture he was going to give me. He gave me the dirtiest look, so I backed off. The next day, he dropped one off. I promised him that it was only going to be for the restaurant. The Bruins also brought the Stanley Cup in here when they won, and I got to drink out of the cup. That was a great memory.
· All coverage of Regina Pizzeria on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All Pizza Week coverage on Eater [~EBOS~]

Santarpio's Pizza

111 Chelsea Street, Boston, MA 02128 (617) 567-9871 Visit Website