Is it possible to feel love in the womb? If so, then my true first love began with the pizza at Prince Pizzeria in Saugus, Massachusetts. While pregnant with me, my mother was an early loyalist to Prince Pizzeria: An out-of-the-way, quirky, yet delicious pizza joint, which would later become my absolute favorite pizza.
For many feuding loyalists, whether it’s being a fan of the Jets vs. Giants or Cubs vs. White Sox, the loyalty stems from the nostalgia of shared experiences, rooting for that team with your family every week. Now for me, those teams and their rivalries are meaningless, but the pizza that pairs beautifully with watching sports is not. We all know that claiming “best pizza” is a contentious topic, so I pose a slightly different question today: ‘Does the pizza of your childhood live up to the nostalgia it created?’ I believe Prince Pizzeria does, and I hope to convince you that your childhood pizzeria does too.
I grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts, in what I would call a pretty “white town”. My hometown is known for things like Paul Revere’s midnight ride, Little Women, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Enough said. Growing up in a town that didn’t have a strong sense of diversity, Prince was my escape to discovering different people. People with loud, embarrassing families just like mine. It was like taking a train from Pleasantville to Penn Station. But as a child, I still wondered why we, and seemingly every other Indian family in Boston, drove 45 minutes out of the way for this pizza.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1970, and began frequenting Prince Pizzeria (or simply “Prince” among my family) in 1974. Apparently, when they moved to Massachusetts it was well known in the Indian community that Prince was the only place willing to spice their pizzas up a notch by adding barbaric extras, such as fresh jalapeno and garlic. We all know spice is paramount to Indian cooking, and that simple request (now on the Prince menu as the “Hot N’ Spicy Combo”) was a game changer for my family, the Indian community in Massachusetts, and hopefully for Prince Pizzeria as well.
When asked about Prince, my dad would say, “Prince is where we always run into our friends”, and as immigrants that was particularly important to them. Coming to the U.S. from India must have been an empowering, but often-times intimidating and harrowing experience. Sometimes I can’t fathom the risk they took to provide more opportunity for my generation. What risks have I taken lately? I did j-walk across Columbus Avenue the other day, does that count? Either way, being thousands of miles from home, yet finding that small community, which truly accepts you and understands your needs is a huge win. From family gatherings, to birthday parties, and begging for one more quarter to play ‘Cruisin’ USA’, Prince has become an iconic spot in our family circle. Even my grandmother, during her visits from the MotherLand, was accustomed to the Prince tradition. I swear she must have wondered if Prince Pizza was the true reason my parents immigrated to the United States. The Castrabertis, the founding family of Prince, recognize the importance of community for immigrants in many different contexts, and show it proudly with a sign over Prince’s fireplace reading “The Boston Italian Immigrant Society”.
I’ve never actually visited the ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’, but by frequenting Prince, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty damn close. Similar to the iconic unstable masterpiece, the Castraberti family went down a risky journey in 1961, rebuilding the pizza joint originally called, “The Leaning Tower of Pizza” in Saugus, MA. To make things even more interesting, in 1978 the family expanded the structure on the infamous Route 1 (don’t worry, I’ll explain) by adding Giggle’s Comedy Club. Hold on. Delicious pizza and hit-or-miss comedy all in one place? Now, that’s what I call a true masterpiece. While budding Boston comedians, such as Louis CK, made their stand-up rounds, the Castraberti family ensured Prince continued to feel like a warm, homey place for multi-generations of families to gather and eat what was voted the ‘Best Pizza of Boston’s North Shore’. All right, like I said before, ‘Best Pizza’ is always debatable. When I introduced Prince to my husband for the first time (after years of build up from myself, cousins, friends, and family), I eagerly watched him take that first bite, and reply simply, “this is pretty average pizza”. While I love my husband, and can totally understand someone reacting that way, he’s dead wrong. Prince is special, not just for the pizza, but for all it has done for my family and dozens of other Indian families. At the end of the day, Prince Pizzeria is our place of acceptance.
The comforting kitsch of Prince Pizzeria does not end with a subpar comedy club attached to the authentically decorated pizza joint. You may be wondering, “how the hell does one order pizza at Prince”? Well probably not, but I’ll tell you anyways. Ladies and gents, I’d like to introduce you to the first ever, “Pizza DJ Booth”. Mind. Blown. Let’s lay down the beat. Mikey (your teenage yet professional server) enters the booth at the front of the restaurant with piping hot pizzas in both hands, and drops a bar with the order name. In my case, my brother’s name “Vishal” is announced. In addition to my family, four to seven other Indian families with their own Vishal’s leap in excitement to claim their order. Now, remember my hometown buddy, Paul Revere yelling “The British are Coming!” to warn the colonists? I imagine every Sunday the Castraberti family yelling, “The Indian’s are Coming!”. But unlike Mr. Revere’s warning sign, this is a welcoming cry to enjoy pizza and create a community, not to start a war.
After dousing my first slice of pizza at Prince with table-side red chilli flakes and parmesan cheese (a must for any legitimate pizza joint), that first bite of Prince’s greek-style pizza is heart-warming. What I’m experiencing at that moment is a perfect cheese-to-sauce ratio, not too fancy, not too sloppy, with undeniably one of my favorite crusts. Under normal circumstances, once reaching the crust of a slice, I’m one of those pizza snobs who may call it quits, tossing aside those last couple bites (you who know you are). But in Prince’s case, I actually look forward to the crust, which is luscious and buttery, yet perfectly crispy, from the first memorable bite to the last. Because of that feeling, my “Insider Tip” is incredibly crucial.
As a frequent mover from one city to another, any reminder of your family and childhood routine is a necessary comfort. I found this through Prince’s wonderful to-go option, “Take N’ Bake’ pies (not to be confused with ‘Shake N’ Bake’ of the 80’s and 90’s). Half-baked, ready-made Prince pies that can sit in your freezer at home and be placed directly in the oven, ready to recreate an at-home Prince pizza night. Less Shake but certainly more at stake! To this day, even as an NYC resident with plenty of spectacular pizza options, I request that my mom ship me frozen Prince pies. And when she does, my heart warms, butterflies erupt in my stomach, and I feel right back at home.
I’m not the only one who feels nostalgia for Prince Pizzeria. Just take this one Yelper’s review:
“When I was in elementary school, I came here for tons of birthday parties and we got to play games and throw cream pies at the faces of losers. Yes, I am completely serious. However, maybe because there are so many rules and regs now, but I feel like the place is a sad version of what it used to be.”
Ok, so that went in a much different direction than I thought, sorry about that. It seems like this person’s form of nostalgia has to do with throwing pies at losers. But honestly, what really defines someone as a loser? Sure, maybe it’s simply someone losing a game, or maybe they got rejected by their long time crush. Could it be someone who stays up late writing about their childhood pizza obsession? Ok, I’ve digressed — let’s move on.
Some may consider me a pizza enthusiast, or some may just think I eat a disgusting amount of pizza. Either way, I’m not here to convince you that Prince Pizzeria is the best pizza in the world. I could go on and on about Prince, but eventually, once you’ve spent every last quarter on Cruisin’ USA, you need to make an exit. And this is where the infamous Route 1 comes into play. As a recent Giggles stand-up (for Sopranos fans, he plays Tony’s bartender at the strip club) puts it “leaving this place is like trying to enter a NASCAR race.” Well, hopefully that Cruisin’ USA practice comes in handy.
To answer our ultimate question, “Does the pizza of your childhood live up to the nostalgia?”. Yes, for me it does. Prince Pizzeria brought our families together for years and those memories will always make the pizza taste better. It’s as though the memories and long-standing traditions cause a physical transformation of taste buds. Or maybe it’s the countless number of times that my pregnant mom felt the joy of eating Prince Pizzeria that forever changed my sensory organs. I’m not sure. But I am sure that Prince is one of the few restaurants I can drag my dad to without much fuss (although guaranteed he will complain on the long drive home that he ate too much). And I can also guarantee that reflecting on your childhood pizza joint will bring out the loyalist in you too. However I wonder, are you still paying homage to that special place? If not, maybe pay a visit and say hello to your local Castraberti Family and thank them for adding that extra special touch or spice.
The Indian community is loyal to Prince, and in turn Prince has been loyal to our community. Among a diverse set of country flags that line Prince’s front awning is an Indian flag that you can’t miss blowing in the wind as you zoom down Route 1. That type of community support can be explained best by the owner himself:
“It’s so rewarding and exciting to walk by a table and realize there are three, sometimes four generations, of one family at one table”.
Thank you Steven and the Castraberti family, we hope to keep up the tradition, and new generations will consider Prince Pizzeria or the pizza of their childhood for The Loyal-List.