Stuck near Turnpike Exit 13 by the Goethals? Looking to eat pizza on the hood of your car? Craving sausage bread? Al Santillo can address these desires.
On a spring day in 2006 my wife and I were cruising the streets of Elizabeth as our daughter napped in the backseat. And there it was: Santillo's, established in 1918. Not too shabby, considering that Lombardi's — which opened in New York City in 1905 — claims to be the nations's oldest pizzeria.
But I blew it: I went in, saw no tables, no people, grabbed a free magnet, and ran out. I'm not sure if it was the quiet alley approach or the lack of tables or ambiance that scared me away, but I didn't try a thing.
Over the next four and a half years, the magnet teased me from my refrigerator door. I felt guilty for not having a slice.
Santillo's is only a couple of (high $ toll) bridges away from Brooklyn but it took me over four years to return. In October 2010 I went on Scott's Pizza Tour (Pizzacentric journal entry here), during which Scott, who grew up in Union County near Santillo's, told me that I really ought to go, that Al Santillo is a great guy, and that the pizza is excellent. I told Scott about my magnet. He was envious.
Later that month, on my way back from an appointment in central New Jersey, I returned this time to taste Santillo's baked goods.
Al and his son Nicholas were there. Al likes to talk about anything pizza related: pizza, pizza ovens, coal versus gas, baking and bread, quality control, the Santillo family history, the different eras of pizza. Scott was right: Al is awesome.
I chose a couple of squares to eat in the car (great crust, chewy well-done mozzaerella). Then Al insisted I try his sausage and cheese bread.
The pizza is fantastic and Santillo's offers many styles worthy of pizza dreams, but the sausage bread offers the true incentive for a veer off the highway.
Here's how they make it. They roll out a dough as flat as a pizza and cover it with large pieces of local Italian sausage (pork, fennel, black pepper, salt) and chunks of mozzarella. Then, Al says, they "roll it up like a gym towel" and let it rise (or, sometimes no rise — it works either way) and then it's baked 12-15 minutes in the oven at 450 degrees. The result is a soft but chewy, pleasantly greasy, meaty Italian bread. I kept my extras in the fridge and cut off slice after slice to eat cold until it was gone (sigh).
(Santillo's menu makes evident Al's love for pizza by the range of styles he offers. His pies that are titled by the year and type. The "1948 Style Tomato Pie w/ Grated Cheese (No Mozzarella)", the "1957 Extra Thin 14" Round", the "1960 Style Less Cheese More Sauce", and the "1990 Style Soft and Thin Crust American Style," to name a few.)