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]

New York: best and worst city in schismatic survey

If you want to travel like a local, then it makes sense to know something about your destination … and isn’t the best city to live attractive? It’s the kind of place you’d want to explore and see why it’s so loved. And at the same time, you’d probably want to avoid the worst of the worst – who would want to go there?

Well, a new Harris Interactive poll makes this thinking hard to execute, USA Today reports. According to 2,620 Americans, the best and worst are exactly the same. Asked the city in or near which they’d most like to live, New York came out on top. This hasn’t changed (except once) since Harris began posing the question in 1997.

Now, the other side of the issue, what is the most loathed city in America? Well, it seems to be New York. San Francisco and Los Angeles also made both lists.

To see the top and bottom 10, take a look below:
Top of the heap:
1. New York
2. San Diego
3. Las Vegas
4. Seattle
5. San Francisco
6. Los Angeles
7. Nashville
7. Atlanta (a tie)
9. Denver
10. Boston

Bottom of the barrel
1. New York
2. Detroit
3. Los Angeles
4. Chicago
5. Houston
6. Miami
7. Washington
8.San Francisco
9. Dallas
10. Phoenix (tied with New Orleans)

[photo by Francisco Diez via Flickr]

Five reasons why the Amtrak Acela Express is far superior to flying

There are four basic ways to travel among Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. You can fly, drive, ride a bus or take a train. Every traveler has his preference, but having played with all four options, I’ve found that hitting the rails is the right one for me, an increasingly popular position. I hate to be behind the wheel (a side-effect of living in Manhattan), and buses do tend to be slow, uncomfortable and unpleasant (though incredibly inexpensive). Flying … well, flying is everything a bus is only more expensive, a little bit faster and still slower, usually than driving or taking the train.

Usually, my decision on how to travel these routes comes down to flying versus rail. There’s no choice any more. Last weekend, I took the Amtrak Acela Express on a Boston-to-New York round trip, my second this year, and I was thrilled with every aspect of the experience.

Here are five reasons why the Acela is far, far superior to air travel in the Bos-Wash corridor:1. Save time up front: whether you’re in Boston or New York, you don’t have to leave the middle of the city to get to your transportation, and the same holds when you arrive at your destination. In New York, you get on at Penn Station, and in Boston, you can choose either South Station or Back Bay Station.

2. Save more time up front: the track isn’t announced until around 15 minutes before your train departs. So, don’t worry about having to get there an hour early or longer. I know, I know: for the Delta Shuttle, you don’t have to get to Marine Air Terminal an hour early, either. If you’re flying at a peak time (think Friday at 5 PM or Monday at 7 AM), you really do need to get to the terminal more than an hour ahead of time. They’re “peak” for a reason.

3. Stretch your legs: business class is the minimum on the Acela Express, and I won’t even begin to fantasize about what first class is like. Everything is comfortable, from being able to recline (and have the person in front of you do so) to the clean, spacious bathrooms. It can be difficult to get up and walk around when the train is moving at its top speed, but you are free to do so – with no “fasten seatbelt” light to slow you down.

4. Service with a smile: several of the announcements on the ride came with the simple yet highly effective suggestion, “Have a positive day.” It worked. I’ve hear similar announcements on planes before, but not often and not with the same voice (this guy was good). The food options weren’t great, and you do have to pay for them, but again, there was that smile involved.

Note: I have no problem with airlines charging for food and think they should have moved to this model a while ago. A la carte just makes sense to me. The differentiator for the Acela is the service that puts it into your hands.

5. There’s no dehumanizing security process: first, there’s no reason not to feel safe, and there are security measures in place to protect Amtrak’s customers. That said, you don’t have to squander your youth waiting to get wanded by someone from the TSA. You just carry your bags on board and take your seat.

[photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr]

Getting drunk: Twenty cities that don’t know how to handle their liquor

California loves to get wasted! San Diego and San Jose are the top two cities that drink stupidly, according to a survey by They lead the country in alcohol-related driving violations, a dubious distinction to say the least. So, if you step into the crosswalk in these two spots, take an extra second to look both ways.

The reasons for hitting this list vary and include proximity to colleges and nightlife, and the presence of stringent enforcement may play a key role, the survey finds. If you think a lack of enforcement puts a city at the top of the list, remember that slapping the cuffs on a lot of people increases the instances of drunk driving, which actually pushes it up. explains:

San Diego most likely tops the list because its police departments are aggressive in making DUI arrests, and officers there arrest lots of drunk drivers, says Mark McCullough, a San Diego police department spokesperson specializing in DUI issues.

To pull the list of 20 drunk driving metropolitan areas together, according to Insurance Networking News, analyzed “percentage of its car insurance online quote requests for which users reported alcohol-related driving violations.”

So, who made the top 20? Take a look below:

  1. San Diego, CA
  2. San Jose, CA
  3. Charlotte, NC
  4. Phoenix, AZ
  5. Columbus, OH
  6. Indianapolis, IN
  7. Los Angeles, CA
  8. San Francisco, CA
  9. Austin, TX
  10. Jacksonville, FL
  11. San Antonio, TX
  12. Dallas, TX
  13. Houston, TX
  14. Fort Worth, TX
  15. Memphis, TN
  16. Philadelphia, PA
  17. New York, NY
  18. Baltimore, MD
  19. Chicago, IL
  20. Detroit, MI

Boston got lucky on this one. It was excluded because of a lack of data – not because the drivers there are absolutely nuts.

Disclosure: I learned how to drive in Boston.

[Via Insurance Networking News, photo by davidsonscott15 via Flickr]

Top five social media destinations

Do you live your life in 140 characters are less? Have you almost lost your life several times because you had to get that shot of a crazy cab driver uploaded to Facebook? If this is anything like you, here are five cities you’re just going to love.

NetProspex has ranked the cities in the United States by social media activity, and the results are not at all surprising. Using the NetProspex Social Index (PDF), which the company developed, it was able to rank activity across a number of social media platforms, including Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Here are the details on the methodology:

The data was mined from their database of business contacts. There are three components to the score. First there is social connectedness: the number of employees with at least one social media profile. Second there is social friendliness and reach: the average number of connections per employee across major social networks. Third is social activity: the average number of tweets, number of followers, and number of users following.

So, who wins? Take a look below:
1. San Francisco: home of Twitter and long-time tech city, is this really surprising?

2. San Jose: okay, like San Francisco but not as cool … pretty easy to see this one coming

3. New York: 8 million people with nothing better to do and plenty to TwitPic

4. Austin: who knew the country’s sexiest city would also be one of its most socially connected? Hot people flock together and like to stay in touch

5. Boston: another tech center, especially the metro area, and there really is nothing better to do up there …

[Thanks @zimmermitch, photo by Laurie DePrete]