After visiting Naples, Italy, in the 1830s, Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, described pizza as “a species of most nauseating looking cake…it all together looks like a piece of bread that had been taken reeking out of the sewer.”
We’ve come a long way since the 1830s when it comes to pizza. Today everyone has an opinion about who makes the best pizza, especially when it comes to city or neighborhood favorites. So it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the subject is contentious in Boston’s North End, too. Some swear by Regina Pizzeria, others go for the Sicilian slices at Galleria Umberto. Some even suggest the best pizza is in East Boston at Santarpio’s (but that’s the subject for a different post). So, as promised a few posts ago, I’m going to delve into four of my favorite pizza joints in the North End. While I won’t declare one to be the best, they all make good pies and I am confident recommending any of them.
Galleria Umberto (or Umberto’s, as I like to call it) has a very small menu. They have a few calzones, arancini, some soda and beer. But the main draw is the $2 a slice Sicilian style cheese pizza. Open since 1974 and owned by brothers Paul and Ralph Deuterio, this is a family business. The owners are quite friendly; on one of my recent visits one of them asked a customer about how his grandkids were doing. It’s that sort of joint.
The inside is plain with a few maps and photos of Italy. There’s some indoor seating but you can also call in your order if you want to get it to go. While the space isn’t big, it’s almost always busy. The line is often out the door.
Umberto’s makes a set amount of pizza every day and they’re only open for lunch. While they say their hours are 10:45 AM to 2:30 PM, Monday through Saturday, they close when they’re out of pizza. So come early and bring cash; they don’t accept credit cards.
But what about the pizza itself? They only serve cheese and all the slices are Sicilian style, which means they’re rectangular shape. The sauce is sweet without being sugary and has a tiny amount of spice. The dough is soft and spongy while being a bit flaky on the bottom. The cheese is mild and overpowered by the sauce and dough, which isn’t a bad thing. One nice thing about Umberto’s is that because they’re so busy, the pizza you get is always straight out of the oven.
In 2018, the James Beard Foundation (is it too cheap to label them the Emmy’s, but for food?) awarded Galleria Umberto with their “American Classic” award. According to the Foundation, “This honor is given to regional establishments, often family-owned, that are cherished for their quality food, local character, and lasting appeal.” Umberto’s fits that description.
Haymarket Pizza traces its roots back to 1970. It's located right next to the Haymarket (which is open on Fridays and Saturdays) on Blackstone Street. They serve many types of pizza and offer it by the slice or the whole pie. A cheese slice will run you $2.50.
The shop is pretty small with limited seating. If the weather is nice I recommend taking your slice a block over to the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Find a bench or one of the swings while you enjoy the scenery.
While Haymarket Pizza does offer Sicilian style like Umberto’s, most of their pizzas are a regular pie. I got a plain cheese slice on my recent visit. I liked that the sauce tasted as though it had some oregano or thyme in it. It had a slight spice but was generally sweet. The dough was soft with a thin crust but it wasn’t brittle. The cheese didn’t stick out much but that could be because my piece had to be put in the oven again since it had been out for a bit. Still, it’s a good slice and one of my favorites in the North End.
Ernesto’s opened in 1984 in the North End on Salem Street. They’re most well-known for their slices, which are huge. Each one is a quarter of a pizza. So you're getting two slices in one. The cost is a little more because of that ($4.75) but it still comes out to be a good deal. The other thing is that Ernesto’s offers a wide variety of pizza to buy as a slice. Most places will offer a slice of cheese or pepperoni, but at Ernesto’s you can get a buffalo chicken slice or even one of their “cheeseburger” pizzas. The latter is everything you’d find in a Big Mac but on a pizza.
The location is small, with six or seven tables. It’s pretty much the definition of “a hole in the wall” restaurant, but don’t hold that against Ernesto’s. That said, I recommend getting your pizza or slice to go and heading to the Rose Kennedy Greenway if the weather is amenable.
The pizza itself is a thin crust but not brittle. It’s soft and crisp on the bottom. The cheese is the perfect amount and taste. My favorite part about Ernesto’s pizza is the sauce. It’s sweet and not too acidic. It’s definitely my favorite sauce out of any of these four restaurants.
One note of warning; if you want your pizza fresh and hot, you’ll want to order a whole pie. Some of the slices may have been sitting for a while, although they always reheat them for you. That minor quibble aside, Ernesto’s is the place I’ve been to the most of any of these four featured pizzerias, so that should say how much I enjoy it.
Regina Pizzeria (translated from Italian, the name means Queen Pizza) can claim the title of the oldest pizzeria in Boston. Luigi D’Auria opened the North End location in 1926. It can also often claim the title of best pizza in Boston (if not the US), which it receives on frequent occasion from various press. The Polcari family purchased Regina’s in the 1940s. They continue to own it and have done so for the past three generations.
Today Regina’s is a chain with over a dozen locations in Eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut. That said, do not go to the other locations. Stick with the original in the North End. The reason? This location uses a brick oven imported from Italy and built in 1888. The other locations use traditional ovens you’d find in any restaurant.
The location in the North End isn’t large but has seating outside. There’s a small bar area (they serve wine and beer, including by the pitcher) as well as booths and tables. You’ll almost always find a line out the door (unless you go at lunch) but it’s so worth it.
The original location offers many types of pizza with toppings that include shrimp, broccoli, and goat cheese. Pizzas can have a pesto, garlic, or marinara sauce. While you can’t get individual slices here, you can get pies to go.
While I like a wide range of pizza, I’ve found their plain cheese to be great. It comes out piping fresh. The cheese is gooey and it has a crispy crust. The sauce is a mix of sweet and spicy. It finds that nice middle of the road spot. After having Regina’s once, you may not agree it’s the best pizza in America. That’s fine. But you’ll understand why it’s often considered the best pizza in the city.
In the course of my research on these pizzerias I came across some interesting pizza facts. Next time you’re eating pizza with friends or family (which odds say will happen this month) impress them with this knowledge.
· Pizzerias sell the most pies on Halloween, the night before Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and Super Bowl Sunday.
· The Hawaiian pizza was invented in 1962 by Sam Panopoulos, a native of Greece who ran a pizza joint in Canada.
· In 1992, the owner of Little Caesar’s Pizza purchased the Detroit Tigers baseball team from the owner of Domino’s Pizza.
· The first pizzeria in America was Lombardi’s in New York City—originally a grocery store, Lombardi’s started selling pizza in 1905.
· Ninety-three percent (93%) of Americans have eaten pizza in the past month.
· Pepperoni is the most favorite topping in America; anchovies are the least favorite.
Don’t forget! Before you get a slice of pizza, make sure and go on our North End Crime Tour! Click the Book Now button on this page to purchase tickets.