Eat like a Boston local at Santarpio’s

I was almost disoriented when I stepped out of the Maverick Square subway station in East Boston. I hadn’t been back since moving to New York in 2004, and it was different – new and improved, as they say. Many of the same businesses surrounded the square, but I couldn’t get over the subway station. As I ambled down Chelsea Street, the East Boston with which I was familiar came back, but only briefly. Once I stepped into my favorite pizzeria, Santarpio’s, I was once again assaulted by change.

Before the smoking ban hit Boston, it wasn’t unusual to see guests and staff puffing away occasionally in this local joint. Aside from walls full of celebrity photos – the usual chest-beating of small, local restaurants – there wasn’t much in the way of aesthetic effort. Santarpio’s looked rundown, tired. Nonetheless, the staff was always highly motivated, and the rather meager menu was always fulfilled with ruthless efficiency.

I can’t count how many times I ran down to Santarpio’s when I lived in Eastie, either to eat there or pick something up to take back to my Maverick Street apartment. It was often enough that I had clear expectations upon my return six years later. I was ready to see a dive impervious to progress, a small corner of Boston that was exactly as I had left it.

I was simultaneously disappointed and not when I took my seat.

%Gallery-105678%Much was different. A fresh coat of paint found its way onto the walls, and the menu was longer. You could actually get garlic or sausage on your pizza! And, there seemed to be a few more beer choices in play. But, wine was served in the only glass size available (the same used for soda, water and beer), and the menu remained short, even if expanded. A neon, electronic jukebox hung on the wall. There were signs of progress all over the place.

In terms of what truly matters, though, I learned that nothing had changed. Even in a crowded restaurant – I went on a Saturday night – the waitress got to my table quickly, served the beer promptly and took the order … with the same ruthless efficiency I had experienced more than half a decade before. Amid all this, the service was friendly without letting smiles and pleasantries get in the way of speed and accuracy. You get what you order. You get it fast, and you get it hot.

Inside the kitchen, the only thing that changed was the faces, though even they may be the same (c’mon, it was six years ago!). The pizza-making process has not changed a bit, as reflected in the first bite I took. As soon as the cheese sauce and dough of this thin-crust delicacy hit my tongue, I was taken back in time. The taste of a Santarpio’s pizza is nearly ineffable, with the corn meal on the crust (in abundance) defining an aspect of the pie that’s usually relegated to obscurity, except in regards to thickness.

Given the texture of a Santarpio’s pizza, it is tempting to cut into it with a knife and eat it with a fork – the crust is that thin. Fight the urge! Pick it up, fold it and stuff it in your mouth. There’s no other way to make the experience complete.

Despite the initial shock I felt upon returning to my old neighborhood, I quickly realized that progress does not have to destroy tradition. Maverick Square did need a new subway station … as Santarpio’s did a new layer of paint on the walls. And, the “expanded” menu, I’ll concede, was a good idea. After all, I did get a pie with homemade sausage on it and absolutely loved it.

What I learned, walking back to the shiny subway stop down the street from where I used to live, was that advancement can shroud tradition protectively, preserving history by keeping the past from being obliterated completely. This cultural coating is how we can balance moving into the future with allowing what has shaped our trajectory to persist.

[photos by Laurie DePrete]