I’m really glad that Al Santillo from Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza sent me an email describing his shop. This place is well-hidden even by the formidable standards of Elizabeth. Parking is almost impossible, and you can’t see the main entrance from the street; even if you’ve spotted the billboard-sized sign down near Bayway, you’re still not there.
And when you get there? A tiny counter in a brightly lit kitchen with the oven—the oldest brick oven for miles—and a prep area the size of a Manhattan apartment. It’s here in this tiny, secluded spot that three generations of the Santillo family have been turning out Southern Italian-style breads and pizzas.
Needless to say, there’s no place to eat, and only one metal folding chair to sit in while you’re waiting for your takeout. And the tavern that supposedly welcomes you when you bring some of Al’s pizza is no easier to find. All of the elements of legend are here in spades.
But what about the food?
Al preserves a style of baking that’s tough to come by. Unlike The Bakehouse in Columbia or Amano in Ridgewood, Santillo’s doesn’t have the luxury of creating something new from scratch. He’s not married to the old ideas, he’s the personification of them—a living master of a certain style of bread and pizza that is just barely hanging on.
Santillo’s is an unusual port in the New Jersey pizza ocean because with no dining room and little press, you can’t really get a sense of who’s eating the stuff. Down in Trenton, with a similar pizza style, you can see the folks from the state capital there; movers and shakers in good suits. At Amano’s in Ridgewood, the tone is upscale, the Italian that’s spoken is as modern as tomorrow, and the pizza reminds you of the hippest places in Manhattan.
So what does Al Santillo bake in that huge oven of his? Deeply cooked and thin-crusted round pies with modest toppings, thicker rectangular pies topped the same way, and loaves of good white bread. The sight of an anchovy pizza coming out of the oven almost made me cry. Asking if this place is “authentic” or “Italian” somehow misses the point. No, pizza in Italy is never served this well-done, but pizza in New Jersey? Yes, this is our tradition. It’s the same with the bread, lightly seeded and called “Italian” by most Americans—but not really like what most Italians eat today.
This brings up so many questions. How do modern traditions evolve from their origins? Can we embrace this place as a living part of Elizabeth, even if it's strayed from its original roots?
I keep having a nightmare about Santillo’s. One day, I walk through the alley and in the secret side entrance and instead of Al and his wife, there’s two graduates from the Culinary Institute of America, with whisks tattooed on their forearms, blue bandanas over their shaved heads. They tell me that Al has quit to work for the Elizabeth School Construction Authority and that they’ll be using the oven to bake specialty items for Manhattan restaurants. When they boast that one of their products will be served at Per Se and that nothing they make will be available locally at all—that's when I wake up screaming.
Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza
639 South Broad Street, Elizabeth NJ 07202 (map)