Holy Grail Pie

In food on 06/24/2009 at 4:15 pm

The search is over. We have eaten the best New York-style pizza ever, in Elizabeth, NJ: Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza. It’s in a non-descript part of town, close to a fork in the road in front of a Korean church. You’d miss it if you blinked while driving by. Too bad it’s not in walking distance of our apartment.

Santillo’s masquerades as a house with plain front windows, all blue-collar unassuming; an OPEN sign flickers its presence, almost a pizza speakeasy. We didn’t expect much from the looks of it. (pictures below courtesy Jason Perlow’s flickrstream)

house or house of pizza?

There’s hidden parking behind the house next door, but we missed it the first time around, circled the neighborhood to find a ritzy cul-de-sac on the other side, came back and parked across the street. Then we couldn’t find the entrance. We walked around the corner and saw it, except we were being tailed by a car. There’s not enough room for a car and people to walk alongside in the alleyway.

Picture 2

Inside is just a counter right behind the door, no seating. The space itself is about 30’X 14′, not much wiggle room at all. The anthracite brick oven takes up the rest of the floor. It’s not cramped though. In fact, it looked eerily empty, devoid of normal pizza-making implements. Maybe they’re hidden behind the half wall blocking the customer’s view. We later found out the front of the house used to be a general store.

Besides the oven, there’s a short counter in front of the oven to making pies, and a baker’s rack. They sell freshly baked Italian bread, and they’ll halve it to make you pizza bread too. The oven schematic from the menu header is below.

oven schematic

The menu is awesome in its simplicity, just half a page of choices dated by the year it began being offered:
1940 Genuine Tomato Pie (No Cheese)
1948 Style Tomato Pie w/Grated Cheese (No Mozzarella)
1957 Style Pizza Extra Thin 14 inch Round
1959 Style Large 14 Inch Thick & Saucy
1960 Original Less Cheese More Sauce
1964 Style 16″ A Little Olive Oil & Little Parmesan on Top of Mozzarella
1990 Style Soft and Thin Crust American Style
Thin Pan Style
Roman Style (Easy on the Sauce, Easy on the Cheese, the better to taste the Delicious Crust)

There was also calzone, stromboli and sandwiches, but we got 1964 and waited. The piemaker was surprisingly a middle-aged white guy. It was dead silent in there. The only other person presenst was the cashier, a middle-aged white woman. We looked at the fliers and newspapers on the counter and wall. Apparently this place was voted best pizza in NJ by the Munchmobile, a Star-Ledger outfit that goes around and eats stuff, then blogs about it. I want that job!

The piemaker was just waiting around and no one else (customer-wise) was loitering with us. Locals know to call the order in and pick it up. You could theoretically take your pie to the tavern nearby and eat it, if you buy beer. There’s a flyer with a hand-drawn map by the door.

He starts making small talk. The other half hates conversing with strangers, so it was up to me to respond. Turns out he was Al, the owner of the joint, established 1918, and passed down three generations and counting. He remarked we looked like tourists and so gave us the tour of the oven. There he is below, beaming about the fabulosity of his baby.

al feeding the monster

The oven is cavernous. Those are the longest pizza paddles I’d ever seen. The thermostat goes up past 800°F. He was trucking it along at 550 or so. He continued grilling us about our lives. Before we left with our steaming pie, he said, “If you ever have any trouble, give me a call, I know everyone in town.” Woohoo, finally, we have mafia connections. A round of horse heads for all my enemies, please.

slobber this

We rushed home in our hoopty across town and crammed it into our drooling mouths. The crust is beyond QQ, it’s QQ∞. And the ratio of crust to sauce to cheese: perfect. Overall it is about 1/3″ thick. It’s sturdier than those frou frou gourmet pizza joints, but not as carb-heavy as the go-to corner spots. The olive oil topping ran down to my elbow, so I think we’ll skip that next time. Every other bite had our sausage topping. The sauce was so fragrantly oregano-laden, it was oreganasmic. My sole solitary criticism is that Al is a little too in love with his oven and likes to make the cheese ‘well-done,’ i.e. brown verging on burnt. The crust comes out as hard as the best Balthazar pain de siegle. I like my slices to be slightly foldable. Next time, I will very politely ask if he could make it ‘rare.’

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