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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Review: Galleria Umberto Rosticceria, Boston, Massachusetts

“Umberto's Is A North End Institution”

So, I'm on Hanover Street in Boston's North End and I'm getting a little hungry. From where I'm standing I can see signs for about a thousand Italian restaurants and one Chinese place. Where to go, where to go? When in doubt, ask a local, so I popped into a little bottega and did just that.

There were two very friendly and helpful people behind the counter. As the rest of my party looked over the wines on display, I asked for a lunch recommendation. I knew about nearby Bricco and some of the other higher-end places, so my parameters were simple; good, authentic, and cheap. I inquired about a place whose sign I had seen pointing to a location on another block. “Well, I hate to say anything bad........but I wouldn't eat there.” Okay. Good enough for me. “The place right across the street is good,” one of the clerks said, “but I'm not sure if they're still open for lunch.” There was some window peering as everybody tried to see if anybody was in the place. “You could try Umberto's,” the other clerk interjected. “They're open for lunch, but they only serve until they run out of food.” That sounded intriguing. The first employee immediately jumped on the bandwagon. “Oh, yes! Umberto's! I ate there the other day. In fact, I eat there several times a week. They're really good and they're really cheap. Umberto's is a North End institution.” 

The clerks enthusiastically described the atmosphere and the food. It was a simple counter-service establishment where you ordered, waited, and took your food to a table – if you could find one. They served pizza and calzone and arancini and you could eat like a pig for less than five dollars. “They're always busy,” I was told. “People start lining up sometimes before they even open their doors.” Okay, I was sold. “Where is it,” I asked? “Just a few doors down. You passed it on your way here.” I didn't remember passing any “Umberto's.” Thanking the pair, I stepped back into the street and looked in the direction indicated. I still didn't see “Umberto's.” We took a few steps, four pair of eyes scanning the forest of Hanover Street signage, but failing to spot anything that said “Umberto's.” Then we realized we were standing right in front of the place. Hanging over a doorway recessed into the brick facade was a simple painted sign of the type common in the 1950s and '60s. Over a big “Coca-Cola” logo, it read, "Galleria Umberto Rosticceria." Apparently, we had arrived.

I was a bit confused. I've always thought that a “rosticceria” was a place that specializes in roasting meats. You can find chickens, ducks, rabbits, and other birds and small game slowing roasting on hand-turned or mechanical spits in such places, but not pizze and calzoni. And to an extent, this is true. But a Neapolitan friend of mine assured me that for such establishments to serve lighter fare, like pizza and calzone, is not at all uncommon in many parts of Italy. At any rate, we ventured inside. The place was absolutely slammed. My wife and daughter-in-law hurried to stake out one of the two available tables while my son and I braved the line.

As promised, the menu was quite simple; I can print the whole thing right here: Pizza, Panini, Pizzette, Panzarotti, Arancini, Calzone Spinach, Calzone Spinach & Cheese, Calzone Spinach, Sausage & Cheese, Calzone Ricotta, Ham & Salami, beer, wine, soda and bottled water. That's it. And it was, indeed, cheap. The day I was there, slices were selling for $1.65. You get slices, by the way. No ordering a whole pie here. And it's Sicilian pizza. Given my Neapolitan pizza prejudice, that was a little unexpected. But, man, was it good! 

A quick note on the difference: Neapolitan pizza – originating in Naples – is round and thin-crusted. It's what most Americans think of when they think of “regular” pizza. Originating in Sicily, Sicilian pizza is thicker-crusted and rectangular. Sicilian pizza is often called “sfincione” or “sfinciuni” in the Sicilian dialect. There are tons of subtle differences in preparation and taste, but crust and shape are the most obvious ones.

The pizza at Umberto comes out on whole sheet pans. They bring it out of the kitchen and slap it on the counter. The counter guy cuts it up and transfers slices to paper plates. There's nothing fancy or elegant about it. And don't be looking for pepperoni and sausage and onions and peppers. There's no “meat lovers” here, no “supreme.” In the Umberto kitchen, they layer a thick, yeasty crust with a sweet tomato sauce, pile on the cheese and bake it until the bottom crisps and the top bubbles and turns golden brown. The pan hits the counter, the slice hits the plate, and your taste buds hit the heavens.

I make arancini all the time. When I make them, they are golf ball-size and I stuff them with a little smoked mozzarella and maybe some ham. The arancini at Galleria Umberto are the size of tennis balls and they are filled with cheese, ground beef, tomato sauce, and peas. One arancino is a meal. My wife was unable to finish hers because she also had a slice of pizza. But it was cooked to perfection. It's easy to get a heavy, greasy arancino. There wasn't a hint of greasiness here and the crispy, light texture on the outside combined with the soft, creamy interior to create a delightful ball of flavor. The peas added a pop of sweetness to the cheesy, meaty goodness. Un piatto perfetto! 

My daughter-in-law waffled a bit between pizza and calzone. She was concerned because many places make a calzone the size of a dinner plate. The ones at Umberto were a good size; big and hearty without being OMG oversized. She bravely confronted her spinach and cheese calzone and won the battle, commenting on the nice balance of spinach to cheese. Often there can be an overload of cheese that totally overpowers the spinach. That was not the case here. Another delightful dish.

My son and I each devoured two slices of pizza. Normally, this is not much of an accomplishment for either of us; at Galleria Umberto, it was. The square slices were thick, saucy, cheesy and very rich and filling.

In retrospect, I wish I had opted for a single slice of pizza and gone for some panzarotti. I saw some on other plates and they looked like cheese-stuffed potato croquettes on steroids. Definitely going there next time.

There are no dessert offerings at Galleria Umberto, but, hey, it's the North End. Mike's Pastry is across the street, and there are dozens of other places doling out gelati and cannoli only steps away.

Standing in line for about fifteen minutes, I had a chance to observe the ballet that is service at Galleria Umberto Rosticceria. The people behind the counter are amazing. Italian and English switch back and forth as workers glide in and out of the service dance with practiced ease. It's obvious some of them have been doing this for a very long time. It's equally obvious that they all enjoy what they are doing. Smiles are everywhere. Regulars get hugs and pats on the back. Even first time patrons are made to feel like regulars. It's very much like a little bit of Italy in Boston's Little Italy.

Don't judge the book by its cover. Compared to the shiny new chain pizzerias that are customarily found in most American cities today, Galleria Umberto appears a bit dingy and dated. Old wall murals, dim lighting, no-frills tables and chairs. It's a place that a lot of fussy, prissy people would turn and walk out of. And they'd be missing out on an extraordinary culinary experience. This unprepossessing little place has won a bunch of awards. They were named “Best Pizza Place in the Boston Area” in 2006 and food writer Adam Richman included them on his 2009 list of Top 25 Pizzas in the US. They also regularly make Zagat's list of Best Pizza in Boston. Zagat also rates Galleria Umberto among the Best Child-Friendly Restaurants in Boston.

Galleria Umberto Rosticceria is located at 289 Hanover Street. They open at 11 a.m. and close when they run out of prepared pizza dough. Seriously. The dough seemed to be holding out pretty well when we were there just after 1 p.m., but when we walked by a little later in the afternoon, the place was already closed. The locals start lining up around 10:30. Probably a good idea to plan on an early lunch. Obviously, reservations are neither required or accepted and dress is casual. As for parking, well......it's the North End, folks. Good luck. One important word of caution: bring cash! Galleria Umberto is a cash-only establishment and there is no ATM on premises. They don't have a Web presence, but you can call Galleria Umberto Rosticceria at (617) 227-5709.

1 comment:

  1. We just visited Boston last month and ate at Galleria Umberto. UN-freaking-BELIEVABLE!!! We loved everything. And we tried EVERYTHING with our group. But hands down, the pizza is the best. I would say 3, not 2 slices, will fill a hungry man. I was sitting there enjoying my slice of heaven when the man behind the counter shouted "last pizza!" I looked at the people in line and they all got worried that they would run out before they got to the front.

    Get there early!!!

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