Family confession: My brother lives in (oh, the shame)... New Jersey. I'm so embarrassed that whenever I'm going to visit him I tell people he lives on Staten Island (which is preferable to New Jersey). Still, we do come from the same parents (although I've always suspected that he's adopted) and we both have a love for pizza in our DNA. So when he raved that the best pizza in the world was in Elizabeth, just 10 minutes from his office in Newark, I naturally thought that the drinking water in New Jersey had finally gotten to him. After six months of prodding, I finally took the 20-minute drive through the tunnel.
The sign on the little house on South Broadway with the Italian flag says "Santillo's Italian 'Bread' Pizza" and immediately reminded me of the signage of Sally's and Frank Pepe's in New Haven, Conn., the only city or state that can compete with New York City and New York in terms of pizza heritage. I'll even admit that I loved the unique tomato pies I'd had in Trenton, N.J., at the original DeLorenzo's on Hudson Street which, sadly, I'm told recently closed. But Elizabeth? You might as well go to Old Forge, Penn., the self-proclaimed "Pizza Capital of the World" even though the locals there don't even know what mozzarella cheese is.
Santillo's appears equally bizarre as you walk around the front of the house down an alley toward a parking lot before a STOP sign and ENTRANCE sign direct you through a screened side door. The term "limited seating room" doesn't do it justice. Santillo's is strictly takeout and, if you're smart, you'll phone in your order to pick up, as there's only "limited standing room" (maybe for six thin people) in front of a tiny counter behind which is a large glass refrigerator with a variety of bottled sodas in what should have been the living room of the house.
But then you see the first indication that you're inside of a living, breathing pizza museum. Resting on some wire shelving hanging from the low ceiling are the longest pizza peels I'd ever seen, perhaps 20 feet long, rivaling even those I'd seen at Pepe's. Then, you get your first glimpse of Al. Choosing the proper length of peel like Tiger Woods choosing the proper club, third generation, sandy-haired, mid-50s, and pleasantly plump, Al Santillo looks more like my brother than my brother. His wife Lorraine is shouting out the pizza orders to Al, who seems preoccupied with shaking white bags filled with hot freshly made zeppoles so as to evenly cover them with melting powdered sugar.
And then, if you're truly lucky, Al invites you to come around the counter and peer into his oven. Although converted several years ago to gas from its original coal fuel source, the oven appears to have no end, reaching a depth of 20 feet and having a width of 14 feet. Hence the need for the varied lengths of giant peels. The low arched brick ceiling of the oven looks like the ceiling of a cathedral. The oven, originally built for baking bread, is estimated to date from 1904, two years older than the bakery oven used at Lombardi's Pizza on Spring Street (which is widely considered to be one of the oldest pizza establishments in the area). Al's grandfather baked foccacia in the 1920s and Al's dad, Alfred, bought the current location with oven in 1957 to focus on pizza.
Al, who has manned the oven as apprentice in training since age 5, is not only the oven's curator and heir to the historic treasure, he is the consummate craftsman. Besides pizza, he still bakes heavenly seeded loaves of Italian breads, some stuffed with sausage, ham, pepperoni, spinach, cheese, and/or broccoli. Some of the breads coming out of the oven while we were there were, like Al himself, creatively free form, looking more like heirloom tomatoes than bread. Having grown up literally upstairs with the kitchen as his play room, Al knows every square inch of the 20-foot oven, including all of it's idiosyncrasies and temperature variations. He reminded me of the glass-blowing master artists I'd recently visited on the island of Murano, who not only create beautiful glass art with their ovens but, on special occasions, will bake the local Venetian lagoon eel in the ovens, flavoring it with bay leaves.
Did I mention the pizza? People never forget their first car (1978 Ford Mustang for me), but what about their first pizza? The menu at Santillo's runs as deep as the oven, with the choices of pizza style categorized by the year of their creation. Al is like H.G. Wells with an oven for a time machine, constantly bringing past pizzas back to the future. The oldest are the 1940 Genuine Tomato Pie (no cheese) and the 1948 Tomato Pie (with grated Parmesan), both a nod of respect to their southern New Jersey pizza brethren in Trenton.
After sampling some hot zeppoles courtesy of Al, my brother and I started our historical journey with the 1957-style extra thin 14-inch round pie with chunks of locally produced fennel sausage that reminded me of my Manhattan favorite, John's of Bleeker Street. As if to demonstrate his complete mastery over the oven, Al asked me my preferred crust texture — soft, crispy, or well done. I deferred to his judgment and the crust that came out was a perfect crunchy crispness with just the right amount of char. The sausage melded with the cheese perfectly and the crust, though thin, had just enough air. The sauce definitely made its presence felt — it had a pronounced sweetness yet still retained its acidity, reminding me again of the tomato pies, which New Jersey proudly claims as its own.
Growing up in Queens in the '60s, our grandma walked my brother and I every Friday night to Alba's Pizzeria on the corner of Queens Boulevard and Main Street while my folks got some quality dining time alone in Manhattan near our dad's office. The round pizza of my youth was (and still is) great, but at some point as young kids we tried the square, thick-crusted doughy Sicilian pie at Alba's, draped in cheese, and were hooked for life. So we readily agreed on the 1964 Santillo's signature square, Sicilian olive oil-drizzled, and Parmesan-dusted pie. I swear I shed a tear, if not from happy childhood memories of pizza night with Gram, then because the cheese, which I couldn't restrain myself from tearing into, was still in molten form from the oven. Always showing off like some jazz musician, Al riffed by, adding some fresh ricotta to two of the corner slices just to blow our minds over the infinite possibilities.
Grabbing a Santillo's T-Shirt (xx-large) and a loaf of sausage bread, which I'll be having for breakfast today, I swore to Al to come back before New Year's to try the current "2011 San Marzano Tomatoes Over the Cheese" pizza, lest Al take it off the menu. I now have an even better excuse to visit New Jersey. Thanks bro.