Galleria Umberto Pizzeria is our favorite kind of restaurant — a place where everything on the menu is good, and you can pay the bill with pocket change. Operating on Boston’s North End since 1965, it has walls that display Italian tourism advertising posters that look like they might have been there since the beginning. Aside from such nostalgic ephemera, it’s pretty basic: a counter with a hot case full of snacks and a large tray of pizza slices.
Galleria Umberto is utterly authentic, exactly like Sicilian bake shops, or pasticcerias, only without the cannoli. Its pizza, croquettes and calzones do have some American flavor, the pizzas extra cheesy and the ragu extra meaty. Panini are made with lunch-meat ham.
The square slices Americans know as “Sicilian” resemble what Italians might identify as bakery pizza, but this is not classic Italian bakery pizza. It’s a unique slice. The cheese is baked deep brown, ending up darker than the crust. This lends the slice a toasty saganaki sort of flavor.
Although the pizza is excellent and probably the most popular item at the restaurant, it’s not the best or the most interesting thing to get. More traditional Sicilian specialties are a better place to start. Arancini are croquettes made from a beef and green pea ragu stuffed inside a fried ball of risotto. They taste terrific, but like all arancini, they are incredibly dense. Panzerotti are lighter. They are airy potato croquettes with creamy mozzarella and parsley filling.
Galleria Umberto’s panini are not the grilled sandwiches you get at an airport. Here panini means a rolled-up sheaf of salami, ham, and mozzarella baked into a calzone crust that has been studded with sesame seeds. Oil seeping from the meats blends with melted cheese to create something like a sauce.
Given the meaty, cheesy nature of the menu, we opted for the simplest calzone, filled only with garlicky spinach and olive oil. The aromatic bread, pulled from the pile of calzones at the counter, feels like it was pulled from the oven just 20 minutes ago.
We almost didn’t get a pizzette, assuming it to be one of those usually lackluster little finger pizzas sold at pasticcerias. But no, the pizzette here is different from anything we’ve tried in Italy or America. It looks like a well-baked pizza bagel, revealing only a dab of red sauce and a slice of cheese in its center. When you bite it, it is revealed that the delicious wheel is stuffed with the same ragu as in the arancini. So, then, it is a ragu stuffed calzone covered with sauce and cheese. It’s incredible. If this place weren’t already charming enough, it also sells cups of sketchy looking red wine from an iced tea pitcher in the soda cooler.