Carla Santarpio looks tired. The great-granddaughter of Frank Santarpio — the pizza king in East Boston — has been working long hours for the last two weeks, since the family expanded its business and opened a second branch on the site of the former Bennigan’s on Route 1 in Peabody.
Word has spread for months that Santarpio’s would add a second location, and over the summer it was confirmed when two new billboards went up on Route 1 featuring her father, Frank, who retired five years ago.
“The billboards are a tribute to my dad, but they’ll be coming down and won’t be put back up. I think people know us,’’ said Carla, who along with her sister, Joia, and her brothers Joseph and Frank, invested more than $2 million to buy and renovate the Peabody site. Besides the two new pizza ovens, which can cook up to 80 pizzas at a time, the family also had a custom charcoal barbecue pit constructed, on which they will cook rotating skewers of lamb and sausage.
The rest of the brown building is a mix of hardware and brick floors, festooned with photos of regulars, from the late boxing champ Rocky Marciano to Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.
The East Boston restaurant has a sober, no-frills dining room where computers are eschewed, waitresses take orders with pen and paper, and only cash is accepted. Save for four flat-screen TVs and a rectangular bar, the Santarpio children have tried to duplicate the original pizzeria. There are still only three items on the menu: pizza, lamb skewer, and sausage, and the prices are more than fair. The skewer of lamb is $5, sausage is $4, and pizza ranges from $9.50 for a cheese pie to $19 for a heaping slab of pepperoni, garlic, hot peppers, sausage, mushrooms, and anchovies.
Since opening, the place has been full nearly all day, and at night patrons have had to wait more than an hour to be served. When we visited last week, we waited 45 minutes to be seated and another 45 minutes for our pizza. While the sausage and lamb are popular, we stayed with vegetarian fare and eagerly awaited the thin-sliced pies.
When they finally arrived we were not disappointed. For the next 90 minutes, our group discussed pizza and the Santarpio’s lure. The thin slice was best in the simple cheese pizza ($9.50). The thin crust was perfected in 1948, when Carla’s uncle, Joe Timpone, took a day off from his plastering business and rolled the dough thin. The style stuck with regulars, and Timpone stuck around for 40 years. With its slim base, the pizza is made top-heavy, the opposite of what you’ll find in most neighborhood pizza parlors. Here, they construct a pizza with dough, and then place the toppings and cheese next, before adding a thick homemade tomato sauce.
This allows the tomato sauce — a salty, chunky stew — to stand out. As more toppings are added, however, the slice becomes more difficult to eat in a traditional fold and we were forced to use knives and forks. When we sampled numerous other pies — such as cheese, mushrooms, onions, and peppers ($14.50) — we found all of the vegetables fresh but they were so buried beneath the sauce and cheese it was hard to identify them. I found the cheese and anchovies pizza ($11.50) most appealing. The anchovies were numerous, fresh, and delicious.
Usually restaurants change their menus after six months, but that will not happen at Santarpio’s. Some day, they may add steak tips, but that could be far off, says Carla.
“We have three items and it works,’’ she says.