Life of pie A small room, a big oven and an expertise that comes with decades of experience Why Santillo’s in Elizabeth was named N.J.’s best pizza

Andrew Sheldon//September 19, 2016

Life of pie A small room, a big oven and an expertise that comes with decades of experience Why Santillo’s in Elizabeth was named N.J.’s best pizza

Andrew Sheldon//September 19, 2016

The best pizza in New Jersey … can be found at the end of an alley on Broad Street in Elizabeth.

It’s been that way for as long as anyone can remember.

Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizzeria and Bakery, a third-generation pizza shop dating back nearly a century, has had its customers entering through the side door of its current location for years, said Al Santillo, the current owner.

And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“A guy was in here bragging that he does 4,000 pizzas down at the mall on a busy day,” he said. “He’s got a combination microwave and conveyor belt oven, so you know what he’s producing? He’s producing garbage.

“Everything here is flour, yeast and salt. The rest is just time and experience.”

Those that do come to the shop will find more idiosyncrasies than the lack of a usable front door.

Pizza is only sold in pies, so don’t ask for a slice. And don’t plan on eating it there, either. The floor plan has no place for customers to sit.

Santillo devotes his useable space to a 16-foot-deep brick oven built around 1910 and all the ingredients he needs to make his specialties. He said so much of his product’s quality relies on the daily preparation that he’s happy to dedicate the majority of the building’s space to work.

“In your modern restaurant, all of this is seating, and the tiny space is where they’re making everything,” he said, standing among his ingredients in the shop’s back room. “I’ve got all this just to make it and that one little spot where it comes out.”

A flashback to days gone by? Absolutely, the 60-year-old Santillo says proudly.

“There’s a scenario that’s been going on since I was a little boy,” he said. “The supermarkets have to mass produce and sell it to a mass market and put everybody else out of business.

“But there’s this whole other system that’s just about obsolete now where there’s an apprentice system through your family,” he said. “I’ve been working here since I was 5 and everything was made by hand to a homemade standard.”

That standard has kept locals coming down the alley for generations. And, recently, more than ever.

For all of the history surrounding the establishment, Santillo was amused when he became an overnight sensation earlier this month.

After NJ.com announced Santillo’s was ranked as the best pizza in the state in a national ranking by The Daily Meal, business boomed.

Santillo said business was up as much as 50 percent during the second Saturday of the month.

“A few people who came in mentioned it,” Santillo said. “I’m always getting new customers here, but I’m sure some people came in from that.”

Not that Santillo used the award to draw customers. In fact, it was the customers that let him in on the rankings, which were released Sept. 1.

“That’s how I found out, a customer told me,” he said. “Some of the regulars called to tell me they saw it on there.”

Such honors are not unusual for Santillo’s place.

The shop has also been featured in local publications. And, according to Santillo, his pizzeria has been named best pizza in the state by New Jersey Monthly six years in a row and is frequently featured in the Top 3 spots in The Star-Ledger.

Some of these accolades hang on the tiny shop’s limited wall space. Promotion, however, is not a priority.

“I’ve got two more somewhere, but I don’t have the room or the time to put them up,” he said.

And, Santillo is the first to admit, rankings only go so far. The pizza is the key.

“When you get a national publication like that, you’re not going to get a lot of people from Colorado coming out to try your pizza,” he said.

Santillo said being in Elizabeth — even without a front door — gives him an advantage.

“I’ve got the airport not too far, so I get some tourists from that,” he said. “And being in Elizabeth, a lot of people can make a trip and be here in 30 minutes from all over.”

It’s a trip he said a new generation of customers are eager to make.

Santillo said a particular group of customers is willing to pay a little extra for good quality: millennials.

“I get a lot of millennials,” he said. “The good news is they can taste it’s better, and they’re happy to pay the extra money.”

Santillo said he has one more thing millennials shop for: a unique experience.

“It’s an amazing place,” he said. “There’s no other place like this left.”

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