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Ernesto's Anthony Radzikowski on the Upcoming Expansion to Somerville's Assembly Row

An interview with Ernesto's owner Anthony Radzikowski on expanding his 20-year-old pizzeria from the North End to Somerville.

Photo: Pizza-maker Juan Ventura and owner Anthony Radzikowski at Ernesto's, North End/Katie Chudy

20-year-old North End pizzeria Ernesto's is expanding to Somerville's Assembly Row as part of Phase I of the giant development. Ultimately, Assembly Row will also include some other restaurants, including JP Licks, Legal C Bar, Tony C's, Papagayo, and Earls Kitchen and Bar.

"We wanted to get a local, authentic base and address a grab-and-go concept," Assembly Row general manager Russ Joyner told Eater. "From a pizza standpoint, Ernesto's really fit the bill. 20 years in the North End and a great reputation." Joyner predicts that the customer base will be a mix of tourists, people who live or work at Assembly Row, and people coming in from the Greater Boston area. He expects Phase I tenants to begin opening up in mid-to-late May, with the movie theatre possibly leading the charge as early as the end of April.

For Pizza Week 2014, Ernesto's owner Anthony Radzikowski spoke with Eater about the upcoming expansion. While everything is intended to be just like the North End location, there are two key additions in Somerville: gluten-free options and smaller cheese slices for the kids (a typical Ernesto's slice is a whole quarter of a pie.)

After 20 years in one space, what made you decide to expand now?
When I had originally called and inquired about Assembly Row, I wasn't really sure what was going in over there. Once I had gone in and sat and spoke with the leasing department, and we went over the scope of the entire development and its multi-faceted aspects, we thought it would be a good fit for us for a second location. And given the proximity to the North End, it's fairly close to where we are right now.

Had you ever thought about expanding in the past, or was this a new idea?
This is a new idea for us. This is a family business for about 20 years, and the North End always was what it was. We've done really well down here for a long time, and we're very selective about other locations. We have had people approach us in the past and ask if we would want to go into different developments or retail plazas, stuff like that around Massachusetts, but we really didn't want to. But when saw Assembly Row, what they were doing, it really was so different than anything else I'd ever seen. I grew up in Everett, and I remember when the original Assembly Square Mall was built. It was pretty impressive, to say the least, to see what's going to be going in over there now.

Could this be the start of a bigger expansion, or do you think you'll stick with the two locations?
At this point, we've got our hands full, so we're not thinking that far down the road. We're just focusing on Somerville at this point.

Will there be any major differences between the two locations?
Nope, nope, same everything — it'll be the same pizza selection. We don't really vary in the North End. We'll put seasonal pies out there, but besides that, the majority of the pizzas that we sell are the same ones that we've sold for a long time. We introduce new ones here and there and see how the customers like them, and ultimately they're the judge and jury on which pizzas we keep and which ones we don't keep. But the Somerville location will be the exact same pizzas, same recipe, all the same toppings, same exact concept that we do that people are used to in the North End. The only difference is that we'll be doing it at Assembly Row.

What does the new space look like?
It's a pretty small shop; I think we have the smallest location in Phase I. We only have about 1000 square feet. But for what we do, that's pretty much what we have in Boston, so it's always worked for us. We thought that the North End and Assembly Row were very similar in a lot of ways. The demographics — where you have people living there, we have people living down here. People working at Assembly Row, we have all the people working in the Waterfront District, City Hall Plaza, etc. And then of course the people who will be shopping over there and the tourists, it's the same thing in the North End. So when we looked at how comparable it was to what we were used to down here, we said why mess with it? We'll do what we do — just another version of it over there.

Do you ever eat pizza anywhere else, or just your own?
Well, what makes it interesting for me is that I have celiac disease. For people who don't understand what that is, it means I'm allergic to wheat — that's the easy way to describe it. And so one of the things we're excited about is we are going to offer a gluten-free option in Somerville. Now we're unable to do that in the North End because of the confines of the kitchen; we just can't do it over there. But we will be doing a gluten-free option in Somerville. We have a vested interest in making sure it's really good because I'm the one that's going to be eating it more than anybody. [Laughs.]

What made you decide to consider a whole quarter of a pizza as a single slice?
It's funny — people walk in the door, and they're used to getting a slice that's a sixth or an eighth of a pizza, and I always get a kick out of someone who walks in having never been in Ernesto's, and they may order two slices. Somebody behind the counter, whether it's me or one of my staff, will quickly point out to them, Do you know how big the slice is? They say no, and then we show them, and their eyes pop out of their head, and they say, Oh, just give me one. But you do get people who take two of them. They're eating two slices of our pizza — that's a half of an eighteen inch pizza. That's a lot of pizza. Especially if you've got toppings on the pizza. It's a lot even with just cheese but then you start going into the toppings, and that's a lot of pizza to have to eat.

The reason we did it was that it's a talking point. To the best of my knowledge, we were the first ones in Boston to do it. But because we know that there's going to be a lot of kids going to Assembly between the movie theater and Legoland, and not every parent wants to buy a quarter of an eighteen-inch pizza for their five-year-old, we are gonna offer the cheese pizza as a smaller slice for the kids, which we don't do in the North End.

We're real excited about going in there. A lot of people go over there now, and they just see Phase I, which is just the first four buildings. They have no idea how much more Phase II is going to add to the development. I've never seen anything in the retail development anywhere in New England that even compares to this. When all of the Assembly Row project is completed, people are going to realize that it really is a city within a city. There's so much to it; I don't think that they left anything out. It's impressive, and that was really the reason why we wanted to be a part of it. Really excited about having that opportunity to be there.
· All coverage of Ernesto's on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All Pizza Week coverage on Eater [~EBOS~]