Boston’s Galleria Umberto: America’s Best Cheap Slice Place?

sicilian style pizza galleria umbertoThe Galleria Umberto Rosticceria pizzeria in Boston’s North End is named after a stunning, ornate 19th century shopping arcade in Naples. But the interior of one of the country’s best cheap slice places is as Spartan as they come. In fact, the place resembles a cafeteria or, if you’re there at lunchtime, when the lines stretch out the door and around the block, a soup kitchen.

Boston’s North End is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world. Despite the fact that it’s right smack in the middle of an expensive city that’s overflowing with wealthy, highly educated young people, somehow the neighborhood has preserved its distinct Italian-American character. Walk the streets of the North End on a nice day, and you’ll still see plenty of old timers sitting out on their stoops, speaking Italian.

There are dozens of good places to get pizza and other Italian specialties in the North End, but Galleria Umberto is the only place I’ve seen that consistently attracts long lines. Why? They serve damn good Sicilian-style slices of cheese pizza – no toppings! – for just $1.55.

galleria umberto bostonI’ve been to Galleria Umberto (GU) three times for slices over the last few years and I’ve never waited less than about 25 minutes. But I love GU because their volume-driven business model is very 19th century. They have a razor thin profit margin, but sell thousands of slices of every day. Who opens a business these days charging ridiculously low prices, hoping to make it up with volume? Almost no one.

We have more high quality pizza places in the U.S. right now than ever before, but the prices keep going up to the point where pizza isn’t the cheap option it once was. In April, I had a chance to eat at Da Michele, one of the best pizzerias in Naples, and discovered that even the world’s best pizza doesn’t have to be expensive. That’s what I love about GU- they view pizza as a cheap staple, not a luxury.

My sons and I had five slices of pizza and two drinks and the bill came to $9.75. I can’t take them to McDonald’s for that price. Domestic beers are $3. And wines range from $2 -$2.50. Now that’s my kind of place. If you’re looking for a budget lunch in one of Boston’s most interesting neighborhoods, and don’t mind the wait, check out Galleria Umberto. What’s your favorite cheap place to get a slice of pizza?

President Obama’s Favorite Pizza Squares Off Against A College Favorite

pi pizza in st louisWho could resist trying a pizza fit for the President of the United States? Last week, I visited a friend in St. Louis and he mentioned that President Obama offended some in his adopted hometown of Chicago a few years ago by choosing a St. Louis pizzeria called Pi to cater a pizza party at the White House, after having tried and liked their pizza at a campaign event at the St. Louis Arch.

Any pizzeria worthy of the President’s admiration is one I want to try, but I was just in Italy for five weeks earlier this year and ate at Da Michele, a pizzeria that many consider to be the best in the world. The pizza at Da Michele is otherworldly and cheap too, so I was skeptical that Pi could measure up but was still eager to give it a shot.

We met at Pi’s Washington Avenue branch, which is in a stunning, high-ceilinged building in downtown St. Louis. My friend and I decided to split a large, thin-crust Central West End pizza, which comes with mozzarella, prosciutto, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, red onions, and a mountain of arugula.Pi’s thin-crust pizza has very tasty, super thin, almost crispy crust that I found to be outstanding. All of the ingredients were first-rate and the pizza melted in my mouth. For my taste, there was too much arugula and not enough prosciutto, but that’s splitting hairs.

My only complaint about this pizza is the portion and the price, $21. With crust this thin, I could practically eat the large by myself. I had four good-sized slices – half the pie – but I wasn’t full. It’s more than a little unfair to compare a pizza with a slew of toppings in St. Louis to a cheese pizza in Italy, but I’m going to do so anyways.

At Da Michele, the large cheese pizza is just over $6 and is so good you want to get a job at the place, or, better yet, move in upstairs to benefit from the aroma. Over the last decade or so, the gourmet pizza craze has hit every good-sized city in the U.S. to the point that you can get really good, wood-fire pizza fairly easily. But the prices can be ridiculous. In Italy, pizza is never expensive – never. And it shouldn’t be here either.

shakespeare's pizzaWith that ethos in mind, I tried another well-hyped Missouri pizzeria called Shakespeare’s, in Columbia just a few days after our Pi experience. I was just as anxious to try Shakespeare’s because fellow blogger Sean McLachlan wrote that it was “the best I’ve ever had and I’ve been to Rome.”

Shakespeare’s is located right next to the University of Missouri’s main campus in downtown Columbia and the unpretentious vibe couldn’t be more of a contrast to the sleek, trendy interior at Pi’s downtown location. We sat underneath a large sign advertising “Liquor, Guns & Ammo,” and I fell in love with the place after having a look at their homemade food pyramid, which values pizza, candy and my other favorite foods above broccoli and fruit.

We ordered a large sausage pizza and it was tasty, huge and cheap at $15.50. The circumference of the pizza was probably similar to the one at Pi, but the crust was more substantial and filling. That said, I thought that the pizza at Pi was a lot tastier. I ate every morsel of the crust at Pi, but the crust at Shakespeare’s was flavorless.

Verdict: Pi wins the Battle of Missouri for my taste, but even pizza fit for the President should cost less.

Note: Pi now has a location in D.C. as well.

(Photos: first photo by Stlbites on Flickr, second by Dave Seminara)

Da Michele Pizzeria In Naples: Is This Really The World’s Best Pizza?

da michele pizzeria in naplesThere are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pizzerias in the world. Trying to crown one place the best in the world is an absurd task and a fool’s errand. There are an infinite number of varieties and once you start evaluating toppings and specialty pizzas it’s impossible to make a direct comparison between one pizza and the next. But if you just consider classic Neapolitan style pizza without toppings, you can probably narrow the world’s best pizzerias down to the low hundreds.

One place that almost always makes it onto world’s best short lists is Da Michele, a family run pizzeria that’s been serving up Neapolitan pies since 1870, right after Italy became a unified country. Last week I was on a cruise that stopped in Naples for just half a day. My wife wanted to take an excursion to Pompeii but I wanted pizza.

I read that Julia Roberts ate at Da Michele in “Eat, Pray, Love” and concluded that Da Michele was probably a tourist trap. I normally avoid such places but I wanted to see if the hype was justified.

My wife took our 2-year-old to Pompeii and my 4-year-old and I turned up at Da Michele just as they opened at 10.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. At midday, the place can be a zoo, but in the morning it’s very quiet. It’s an ordinary looking place and the moment I saw an old man who later introduced himself as Luigi Condurro, (see photo above) dressed in a shirt, tie and white jacket, stoking the wood fired oven, I knew the place wasn’t a tourist trap.
Luigi is one of Michele’s four sons who preside over the place. They serve two types of pizza – margherita or Bianca, with no toppings. Normal size pizzas are 4 euros, and a large is just 5. A big bottle of water goes for 2 euros. This is a place that could be charging much more but isn’t.

da michele pizzaWe start with a large margherita and it looks amazing coming out of the oven, but it doesn’t appear to look different than other wood fired margheritas I’ve had in the U.S. and other parts of Italy. After taking a few photos of this round little work of art on our table, we sliced it up and dove in.

After my first bite, I had to stifle a laugh. Why was I so quick to assume that this place was overrated? The look on my face as I ate this remarkable pie must have been one of shear bliss. I couldn’t stop smiling. I’ve never taken ecstasy but both Leo and I were sort of overcome with happiness as we savored the perfect blend of crust, sauce and Buffalo mozzarella.

“This pizza is outrageous!” my son said, and he was right. It was ridiculously good. The sauce was sweet and a bit tangy, just right. My son normally tosses crusts, but in this case, he devoured every delicious bite. And the cheese was so good that when a clump of it oozed off of my son’s first slice and onto the floor, he wanted to scoop it up and eat it – and I almost let him. We downed our large margherita and decided to order a regular size Bianca. It was almost as good and we finished every last morsel until we were in a very happy little food coma.

How do I evaluate this pie against some of my favorite places in the U.S. like Joe & Pat’s in Staten Island and Frank Pepe’s in New Haven? It’s difficult to say without tasting them side-by-side, and even harder because I usually get clams or sausage on my pie at those places. But there’s something about having a pizza prepared by Luigi in the birthplace of pizza that makes this place special.

But what made the experience even better was the bill. The large margherita was 5 euros, the normal Bianca was 4 and our large bottle of water was 2, for a grand total of 11 euros. An individual size pizza in trendy places on the east cost can go for more than that alone. In the U.S. these days, Neapolitan style pizza is trendy and you pay accordingly, but in Naples, it’s an everyday food, no different than bread or water.

Da Michele could have very easily turn itself into a tourist trap, catering to foreigners, but instead, it’s still a neighborhood place, where people stop in to pick up pizzas for a song. I don’t know if it or anyplace else can be called the best in the world, but if you consider both price and quality, this place may take the prize.

SkyMall Monday: Food Pillows

gadling food pillows Some decisions are easy because you simply don’t have a choice. The decision is made for you when there’s only one option. Others force you to pick between two worthy candidates (think ice cream or cookies for dessert). Things get tricky when you encounter more than two viable options. How do you choose from a cornucopia of wonder? Here at SkyMall Monday, we typically engage in heated battles of Rock, Paper, Scissors to make these critical decisions. However, sometimes we become so paralyzed by the options that we can’t make up our minds. What do you do when presented with so many outstanding products? That’s the dilemma we’re facing this week thanks to SkyMall. To solve the problem, we’re turning to you, dear readers. Help us decide which of these will become the Official Food Pillow of SkyMall Monday.Food pillows? They’re pillows that look like foods. Too hard to eat, just soft enough to enjoy. Don’t believe me? Check out the product description:

We dreamed we ate an ice cream sandwich and when we woke up our pillow was gone…

Completely dreamy pillows look like the real thing, right down to the delicious detailing.

Dreamy pillows? That’s a delicious play on words right there!

But which pillow is the most palatable? Let’s look at the contestants:

gadling food pillow cupcakeSushi – Something smells fishy, but it’s not your pillow. Naps on this will only leave you feeling fresh (though you should probably take a shower because, unlike your pillow, you smell pretty foul).

Cupcake – Ever wish that you could have an extra large cupcake? As if it were some sort of, I don’t know, cake.

Pizza – No need to blot the grease off of this pizza before you plant your face on it!

Ice Cream Sandwich – Not the sexiest option from the Good Humor man, but better than a pillow with a gross gumball nose.

So many fantastic options. But only one can be named the Official Food Pillow of SkyMall Monday. Seriously, we need one of these for SkyMall Monday headquarters. But which one?! Vote below to help us decide!

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Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

Ljubljana travel
When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.

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Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe - While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English - Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport - This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country - While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.