Travel and Leisure just published its almost totally clueless ranking of the best cities for pizza.
Chicago at number one? New York City only number three? No mention of New Haven, Conn.? I mean come on, get real. I said "almost" clueless because they did manage to get something right. At number five, not surprisingly, they ranked Boston. Putting aside that NYC and New Haven would be neck and neck in my personal pizza city ranking and Chicago would be disqualified (as deep-dish pizza should be categorized as something other than "pizza" in my humble opinion), I recently returned from a pizza crawl around Boston and could almost overlook the "Yankees Suck" T-shirts hanging in the windows of the shops in the Italian North End neighborhood of Boston to get my hands on some "Red Sox" Sicilian-style pizza.
The North End is what New York’s Little Italy was 30 years ago. Its mostly Italian residents do not refer to it as a "little Italy" because it is a living, breathing, vibrant center of Italian-American cuisine and culture, not the pseudo-Italian, Chinatown-encroached tourist attraction that NYC’s Little Italy has become. There are new bakeries like Bricco Panetteria churning out hot loaves of Italian ciabatta stuffed with prosciutto and Grana Padano cheese. There are third-generation family-owned Italian bakeries almost as old as NYC’s original Lombardi’s Pizza oven (1905) churning out a rainbow of Italian pastries, including hand-filled-to-order cannoli with sweetened ricotta to preserve the croccante (crispness) that you lose when the inauthentic custard-filled versions have been lying in the display case all day. Besides pastries and bread, these bakeries also produce trays of square Sicilian pizza, served room temperature and displayed right next to the cannoli. Parziale’s Bakery (since 1907) is right next to Bova’s Bakery (since 1932). While I’m partial to Parziale’s sauce, Bova’s Sicilian square slices have more cheese. Bova also makes every conceivable type of calzone. I like to imagine these acidic tomato, cheese-covered rectangular slices as "bread" rather than pizza. One of these days I’m going to make an Italian sub (that’s Bostonian for "hero") using the pizza in lieu of bread.
There are also plenty of great pizzerias in the North End. The original Regina Pizzeria, dating from 1926, can compete with John’s Pizza of Bleecker Street in NYC or with Sally’s or Pepe’s of New Haven not only for atmosphere but for their fantastic thin-crust pies. Ernesto’s Old World Pizza on Salem Street also serves up huge thin slices with great sausage and other toppings. In East Boston, near Logan Airport, is Santarpio’s Pizza. Since 1903, "Tarps" as the local "Easties" lovingly refer to it, has been serving thin-crusted pies with the cheese covering the choice of topping to also preserve the croccante of the pie. As an added bonus, Santarpio’s also serves charcoal grilled "BBQ," really Italian spiedini-skewers of Italian pork sausage, lamb, and steak kebabs. Served on a plate with a hunk of bread and hot cherry peppers, the BBQ almost, but not quite, upstages the pizza that has been ranked Boston’s best by Boston Magazine for three years running.
But you have to go back to the North End for the square Sicilian pizza that I think could put Boston back into the World Series of championship pizza. While I’d been to Pizzeria Regina and Santarpio’s before, I had never been able to time Galleria Umberto Rosticceria on Hanover Street. That may be because Umberto’s is closed on Sundays and is only open for about three to four hours a day for lunch Monday through Saturday or until they run out of food, which is often sooner. A dark cafeteria-like room with bad murals depicting places in Southern Italy leads up to a glass case holding all manner of fried and baked calzones, arancini and pizzette, all of which are delicious. The line of customers snakes out the door, however, for the gigantic cookie sheet-sized trays of hot, square, toasted cheese-covered Sicilian pizza pies. Having never been able to time Umberto’s hours right, I finally got on the end of the line. Only at Di Fara in Brooklyn did I experience the same anticipation mixed with desperation and fear that they might run out of dough and close before it was my turn. I ordered a spinach/cheese/sausage calzone (having tried the arancini on a previous visit when the owner took pity on me and let me in before the pizza was ready and I couldn’t stay) and four slices of the glorious square pizza. No toppings are offered and none are needed. The calzone was very good but the pizza will haunt my pizza consciousness and memory much the way Di Fara’s square pizza, when it’s perfectly cooked and not too well done, does to this day.