Greater Boston is in the midst of a pizza renaissance. Over the past decade or so, a number of pizzerias slinging a number of styles have opened in the area: Posto, for example, is making excellent Neapolitan-style pizzas in Somerville’s tragically hip Davis Square. Stoked is doing wood-fired pizzas that are a cross between Neapolitan and New York-style in Brookline’s Washington Square (and soon, Cambridge, although without the wood). Dragon Pizza — also in Davis — is the closest thing Greater Boston has to the omnipresent slice shops of New York City.
More good pizza is obviously a good thing. But it’s easy to forget that Boston wouldn’t have any reputation as a pizza city if it weren’t for the holy trinity of dough: Galleria Umberto, Pizzeria Regina, and Santarpio’s.
289 Hanover St., North End, Boston
Before it was a pizza parlor, Galleria Umberto was a tenement home for sailors passing through Boston. Before that, the space at 289 Hanover St. was occupied by two different churches. The New Brick Church — known colloquially as the Cockerel Church because of the rooster weathervane that perched atop its spire — was torn down in the 1840s and replaced by another, more grand church, which only survived for about four decades before a hurricane destroyed its spire.
Umberto co-owner Paul Deuterio had a replica of the original rooster — which was designed by Shem Drowne, who designed the famous grasshopper weathervane that looks over Faneuil Hall — crafted some years ago, and it currently sits atop the building, watching over Hanover Street as its ancestor did more than 200 years ago. It’s a subtle homage to the houses of worship that came before. It’s also apropos: Galleria Umberto is itself a house of worship, although of a different kind.
Every day from 10:45 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. — except on the Lord’s day, and except in July, when the restaurant closes for a month-long holiday — a hungry lunch crowd queues up to eat a slice of Sicilian pizza or arancini at Umberto. They make between 100 and 200 arancini a day, Deuterio said, and all by hand because there “isn’t a mimeograph machine for rice balls.” (Come after 12:30 p.m., and it’s unlikely there will be any left.) On a busy day, Umberto turns out 60 sheets of pizza. That’s 1,200 slices. And they almost always sell out.
Deuterio has been slinging pizza in the North End for almost as long as he can remember. He moved to the neighborhood with his family from Avelino, Italy, in 1958, when he was just 10 years old. In 1965, his parents, Umberto and Antonette, opened a bakery on Parmenter Street. The bakery specialized in bread and only began making pizza because Deuterio figured they could turn the extra dough into extra revenue.
Deuterio and his siblings were all still young, and their parents put them to work in the bakery.
“My parents had a number of children, so it was like having free labor,” Deuterio told Eater. “Starting out, it’s hard to pay employees unless you have deep pockets. Usually, the only thing you had was time to invest. So you work 12-, 13-, 14-hour days, six and seven days a week. That’s how you make ends meet. So when you needed extra help, you called on your children.”
Eventually Umberto’s pizza became so popular that the Deuterios decided to open a second location. They opened at 289 Hanover St. in 1974, just a few years after the building stopped functioning as a tenement home for sailors, and operated both shops until 1988, when they closed the bakery on Parmenter Street to focus solely on Galleria Umberto.
When asked why he thinks people have fallen so deeply in love with his family’s pizza, Deuterio said: “Pizza comes in different types. So if you can get enough people to like the one you make, you’ll be successful. Since we’re in a neighborhood with so many people, and we’ve been here so long, unless you make something bad, you’re fine. If you make something good enough, and you have some longevity, people will come and eat it.”
The lines out the door — and the fact that it’s been doing its thing on Hanover Street for 45 years — prove Galleria Umberto’s pizza is more than good enough.
11 1⁄2 Thacher St., North End, Boston
Walk about a quarter mile from Galleria Umberto to Thacher Street and you’ll come across Pizzeria Regina. Regina is ubiquitous now — the brand has kiosks in food courts, and it’s opened other full-service restaurants outside of the North End — but the hype wasn’t always this palpable.
“It’s been consistently busy since I began working here,” said Richie Zapata, the general manager who’d been working at the North End landmark since 1996. “But it’s been building. Every year, it gets better and better.”
Zapata attributes much of the growth to modern technologies like Yelp, Uber Eats, and Grubhub, and he admits that being named the country’s top pizzeria by TripAdvisor didn’t hurt, either.
Apps and review websites are a far cry from the pizzeria’s early days. Regina opened in 1926, when the oven — which was built in 1888 — was still fired by burning coal. Regina switched from coal fire to gas in the 1930s, but the oven’s cooking surface remains intact to this day. For one day each year, Regina closes its doors to clean debris from the bricks and to seal any cracks or chips.
“We run a fan all night to make sure it’s cool enough to crawl inside,” said Zapata. “It’s pretty hairy going in there, because it’s only like 17 or 18 inches. I wouldn’t want to go in there. It freaks me out, man.”
Zapata spent much of his youth in the North End. His family lived with his maternal grandmother on North Street before moving to Medford, which he gleefully referred to as “the country,” and his paternal grandmother owned a place on Fleet Street.
“We came back every weekend. My mother wanted to see her mother. We came back at 7:30 every Saturday morning. I used to hang with the ladies. It was my mother, her mother, her sisters, and me. I learned how to do a lot of things. I learned how to cook, I learned how to sew, I learned how to love. I learned how to be independent from them.”
Zapata used to fish for flounder and mackerel from the Battery Wharf. He’d use a coat hanger to catch smelt, a trick his grandfather, who was a fisherman, taught him. He even had memories of the Deuterios’ original bakery on Parmenter Street.
“When we were kids we used to go downstairs, and the mother used to be there. The kids would be working, the mother would be bagging orders, the line would be out the door. Old-school Italian.”
And when his mother sold the house in “the country” and moved back to the North End, Zapata did the same thing with his twin sons that his mother did with him — he brought them to the North End every Sunday.
So Zapata understands why people have such affection for the neighborhood. And in many cases, those good memories revolve around trips to Regina. He takes that incredibly seriously.
“When people come back in here for the first time in 40 years, I want the pizza to taste the same for them,” he said. “My main priority is making sure the integrity of the dough is great.”
The contemporary fanfare means that, more often than not, there will be a line outside of Regina. But there are awnings to stand beneath when it’s rainy, and there are heaters to huddle around when it’s frigid. Rain or shine or warm or cold, Regina is worth the wait.
111 Chelsea St., East Boston
Boston came close to losing Santarpio’s Pizza three summers ago when a blaze ripped through a neighboring duplex. As it turned out, the pizzeria only endured superficial damage to its exterior, and it was open for business a day later. It’s hard to exaggerate what the loss would have meant for East Boston — the family-owned and -operated Santarpio’s has been open in the neighborhood since 1903 and slinging pizza since 1933.
Fortunately the city doesn’t have to wonder about that, and Santarpio’s is still slinging its straightforward pies on Chelsea Street.
Cosmetic fixes notwithstanding, Santarpio’s doesn’t change much. Richie Boodoosingh, who works in the kitchen as a pizzaiolo, has been working at Santarpio’s for more than 20 years. Armando Caldarelli, who works as a bartender and is better known by his nickname “Lefty,” has been working at the pizzeria for 52 years. In all that time, he said, he’s still never made a pizza.
“I didn’t want to learn,” he said with a laugh. “I prefer being on the bar and around the people.”
Lefty doesn’t just ply customers with alcohol — he also mans the barbecue grill. Speaking of which — Santarpio’s Pizza isn’t just pizza. An order from the barbecue menu — which includes steak skewers, lamb skewers, house-made pork sausage, and house-made lamb sausage — is compulsory. They come served with hot cherry peppers and slices of fresh Italian bread, and any functions as a fine appetizer before the main event.
The crowd at Santarpio’s is a mix of loyal locals and tourists — its proximity to Logan Airport, and the fact that it’s been featured on the Food Network, mean that tourists are inevitable, and the restaurant gets “even more [tourists] than you know,” said Lefty.
Getting to East Boston from almost any other part of the city can be a bit tricky, but the pizza from Santarpio’s — and especially the sausage, which comes with the meat served beneath the cheese — is worth whatever navigational nightmares you might encounter en route.