Santillos Brick Oven Pizza
Lou Santillo started out delivering bread in a horse and buggy. Today, Santillos creates handcrafted pies suited to individual customers’ tastes.
Combine three generations of pizza making, an antique oven that’s more than 100 years old, and a passion for the perfect pie, and you’ve got one of the most unique pizzerias in the country: Santillos Brick Oven Pizza in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Back in 1920, Lou Santillo started out delivering bread in a horse and buggy, but he was also making foccia (pizza dough baked in a pan with various toppings) for his family at home. By 1950, in his next bakery location and while working with his son Alfred, he decided to incorporate pizza into his business.
“He wanted to keep the place open in the evening and make a little more money, so he started making pizza,” says Al Santillo, son of Alfred and current owner of Santillos. “In 1957, he bought the brick oven I use now.” This oven is the only one of its type that Al knows to exist—a special type called a low-arch. “These are considered the perfect proportions for an oven; every brick was individually cut by hand to make this arch,” says Al. “This oven permits infinite possibilities in temperament and character. It continues to surprise and amaze me.” Al is able to craft pies according to each person’s individual tastes, adjusting baking times and locations for infinite possibilities. “I take careful measure of each customer’s desires,” he says.
Indeed, Al is a perfectionist with his pies, which incorporate the same recipe that his grandfather developed. Al started working at the bakery at age five, according to Italian custom, handing his father the dough, putting dough in boxes, picking out unburned coal from the ashes, and poking the fire. “Just to load the coal—13 shovels twice a day—and maintain the fire is a full-time job to do it right,” he says. “If you want something that good, you must suffer, and we do!” But Al’s tenacity has won him a loyal following and numerous accolades over the years, so he knows not to tamper with a good thing. “Everyone else I know of has compromised the recipe for convenience or to Americanize it, to gain mass appeal,” he says. “I guess you could call me an old stick-in-the-mud, because I don’t want to change if it means giving up quality standards—then I wouldn’t be happy with the product, and I wouldn’t be happy with myself.” —Tracy Morin