From the rusted green overpass of Route 1A in Eastie, passersby catch a glimpse of perhaps the most iconic landmark in all the city — the unchanged and seemingly only remaining joint with an old school atmosphere that is so categorically “Boston.” Santarpio’s — referred to as “Santaaapio’s” or “Tarps” by locals — is not only hailed as Boston’s best pizzeria, it’s listed among the tops in the nation. With wood paneled walls adorned with boxing memorabilia, mint green dividers between booths, and East Boston’s old timers perched at the bar, there is nothing fancy about this spot, and that’s exactly what gives Santarpio’s its unmistakably distinct allure.
Francesco Santarpio was one of the many Napoletani who immigrated to Boston in the late 1800s. With mere change in his pockets, Santarpio, a skilled baker, purchased the building on the corner of Chelsea Street and Porter in 1903 and opened a small business. With a horse-drawn cart, the Santarpio clan went door-to-door selling Francesco’s fresh loaves. But with changing times, Santarpio foresaw greater opportunity. In 1933, Prohibition ended in the United States, and in that very year, Santarpio began selling beer and wine to his customers, making Santarpio’s the first business to hold a liquor license in East Boston. At that time, with a devoted clientele, Francesco turned the business over to his son Joseph, who had an even greater vision beyond his father’s. Although patrons had bread to eat and liquor to drink, Joseph decided that he would expand Santarpio’s into a full-fledged restaurant. He added a small, stone barbeque pit, and with his father’s renowned dough recipe, began making pizza. With 25-cent pizzas, Santarpio’s became the favorite neighborhood locale for the largely Italian community.
Young Frank Santarpio, Joseph’s only son, adored his father and longed to be like him. So at the ripe age of 8, Frank walked each day from catechism classes to his father’s popular joint. His introduction to the business was hardly glamorous, however. On Mondays, Frank was assigned to clean the bathrooms and the brass spittoons, all six of them, alongside the bar. Frank learned at a tender age that working hard was the only path to success.
But by 1960, business was dwindling and Joseph Santarpio was tired. In fact, money was so tight that he either had to close down shop or hand the business over to somebody else. Frank Santarpio simply could not see letting his family business go, and so with a little monetary help from a relative, he became the new proprietor of Santarpio’s. Within a short time, Santarpio’s interior and exterior had a facelift, including the sign that is still plastered on the building’s facade today. “I always wanted my name in lights,” jokes Frank Santarpio, “and this was my chance.”With three of Frank’s four children helping him run the family business, very little has changed, including the restaurant’s menu. In fact, most loyal patrons don’t need to look at one at all. Aside from Santarpio’s nationally acclaimed pizza, options include house-made sausage, lamb tips or steak tips. Each meat dish is served in traditional Italian fashion with hot red and green peppers, and a large hunk of crusty Italian bread. The pizza is mystifyingly delicious, leaving even frequent diners questioning the contents of this distinctly flavored pie. According to Frank Santarpio, the simplicity of its ingredients is what makes it so good. Although the menu is limited, customers can rest assured that each item has been made to perfection. With quick wit and a laugh, Frank jests, “Elise, my menu has to be simple. If my staff walks out, I would have to take over!”
Whether dining at the original Chelsea Street address, or the new location in Peabody, customers can expect to sample the true tastes of East Boston. With jukebox tunes, the colloquial banter of the regulars, the no-nonsense-yet-friendly staff, and the finest pizza in Boston, a night out at Santarpio’s is like no other.
111 Chelsea St.
Boston, MA 02128
71 Newbury St.
Peabody, MA 01960