It’s Monday afternoon, which means it’s a scheduled off day for Al Santillo. Scheduled. But not routine.
Santillo has spent the entire day on the phone, fielding phone calls from fellow shop owners in desperate need of counsel as they fight to stay afloat. There are no easy answers, but he’s uniquely qualified to run this makeshift hotline. He’s the third-generation master behind Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza, the New Jersey institution established by his grandfather, Louie, in 1918 – the same year as the Spanish flu.
“When I was young, whenever something really strange would happen that I thought would put me out of business, there was always someone older who looked at me and said, ‘This place survived two World Wars and the Great Depression,’” Santillo said.
During WWI, Al’s Grandpa Louie was out delivering bread via horse and buggy. During WWII, he added pizza to the repertoire with help from his son, Alfred. At the age of 48, he received a draft notice – ditto for many of his customers. Amidst the fear and economic uncertainty, American spending came to a halt and threatened to destroy small businesses everywhere.
These times are unprecedented. But, at Santillo’s, they’re not unparalleled.
Or, as Santillo puts it:
“After that, anything else is just a pimple on your ass. Ain’t nothin’ coming along that’s gonna compare to that.”
The 63-year-old – who says he has “tomato sauce in his blood” – is as resolute as he is quotable. He likens himself to a “dinosaur;” a relic of the past that is becoming harder and harder to find outside of his quiet block in Elizabeth. His pizza-making peers, eager to learn from his old-school know-how, lean on him as an elder statesman of the industry.
On the digital front, he says the #CantStopPizza movement will go a long way towards reminding customers to support their local shops. To fight the invisible enemy on the ground, he has an analog solution: the “Coronavirus Perimeter,” an ad hoc drive-thru via his screen door. Customers hand off exact change through the top slot – or, better yet, place their orders online – and receive their pizza through the bottom window.
At a time when the roads are empty and most businesses are at a standstill, Santillo’s is even busier than usual. And, still, Santillo is spending most of his free time advising other pizzerias, gratis, and petitioning local lawmakers to allow them to install their own DIY drive-thrus without the red tape of the permit process.
“I want to help every independent shop, as long as you’re not right across the street from me. I don’t care if you’re a couple of blocks away even,” said Santillo. “My father always said, ‘Every Italian guy around here wants to own a pizzeria, why would you stop them?’”
“Years ago, if you had a pizzeria and your mixer broke, you’d come over here, mix your dough, put it in a big Tupperware box, and take it back to your store. That’s the world I grew up in.”
“We’re all in this together.”