All photos/art by Michael Piazza
The North End is Boston’s Little Italy, a narrow web of streets where fifth-generation families and twentysomething professionals still shop at the butcher, the baker, and the greengrocer, sharing crowded sidewalks with the tourists who clog the restaurants on Hanover Street every weekend.
This is a living neighborhood, and visitors want a taste of that authenticity. But locals will tell you that the real North End—the one of their family memories—was lost to suburban flight and the Big Dig, which removed the Central Artery that once walled them off from the world. In English and Italian, the word nostalgia is the same, and old-timers and their progeny both suffer with the sense of a world irredeemably lost.
Except in one place, Galleria Umberto, where you can order a slice of thick Sicilian-style pizza and a soda for $2.80 (cash only), and the menu hasn’t changed since Umberto Deuterio opened his shop in 1974. Many still hold that this is the best slice in Boston, even though it’s nothing like the thin crusts with chanterelles that pass for pie over in the South End. Here, the dough is tender and yeasty, while the sauce—just puréed San Marzano and California tomatoes—makes a tart foil to a thick blanket of cheese. Every so often, GQ or Zagat will put the restaurant on some Top Ten list, and the line gets longer.
Umberto died in 1982, and now his sons, Paul, 65, and Ralph, 56, serve pizza and spinach calzones as well as arancini—fried rice balls stuffed with meat ragu, peas, and cheese. They’ve kept their father’s vintage travel posters and the murals that a neighborhood kid named Vito painted in the early 1980s. It’s also still a family operation, with brother-in-law Tony Riga, a 42-year veteran, in the kitchen. (A pair of “cousins” round out the staff, though the relation isn’t clear.)
For the entire lunch rush, the brothers never stop, Ralph greeting customers in English or Italian and Paul handling the take-out orders. They have soda, if you’re thirsty, but for $2.25, you can get a Dixie cup of wine. They serve only lunch, Monday through Saturday, and they close for a month in July, “mainly because we don’t have air conditioning,” Paul says. But even with limited hours, everyone works six days a week, from 5:30 a.m. until cleanup is done. The business works, Paul says, because they own the space and labor costs are low. But their children all have careers, so there’s no third generation to take over.
On this day, the lunch crowd is a standard mix of locals, Financial District workers, and tourists. Two men in ties tuck into calzones, arancini, and San Pellegrino orange soda—a $9 splurge. Three Franciscan friars—two in brown robes—wait in line with the patient smiles of the blessed. Father Mike and Father Zack both work at Saint Leonard’s, the Italian church across the street; Father Chris is from New Hampshire. They come here often, they say. “Because the menu is limited to a few delicious items, it’s like going to your grandmother’s house,” Father Mike says. Later, on his way out, he stops by. “You know they close whenever the pizza runs out, right?” he asks. “And they close on Sunday. It’s really nice, I think, that they respect Sunday.”
The line continues to swell and ebb, with a last anxious peak around 2:00 p.m. A young boy named Stevie sits down near the front counter. “Daddy,” he says, patting the table, “sit in the spot you sat in last time.” When Steve Sr. complies, the boy smiles shyly. Big Steve says he grew up here, met his wife here, and still has family in the neighborhood, though he now lives in Medford. “It’s the last authentic restaurant in the North End,” he says, ruefully. The family eats their slices and takes some extra food home, boxed up with red-and-white baker’s twine. Steve Sr. looks around. “The way you see this,” he says, “is the same as it was in 1974.” For some restaurants, that would be a condemnation. Here, it’s heaven.