City's original pizzeria, age 51, enjoys modesty

April 07, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

A pizza is a tomato pie at 3131 Eastern Ave.

That's the address of Matthew's Pizza, a place that will never be confused with the pizza chains whose shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange, or who promise to have a pizza delivered to your front door by the time you hang up the phone.

"We don't deliver," says Richard De Santis, the 38-year-old owner of Matthew's, a landmark in Highlandtown. "We close at 10 each night. We're only open Tuesday through Saturday."

Matthew's Pizza has its own niche on the list of Baltimore culinary firsts. It was the city's first pizzeria, opening in 1943.

Many would say Matthew's -- named by founder Matthew Ciociolo -- remains Baltimore's best pizzeria. It hasn't changed much. "I have people who came in here when it first opened and they say it's still the same," De Santis says.

The shop's plain interior holds eight tables covered with red-and-white-checked cloths. Some 32 patrons can be accommodated on bentwood chairs. There's a vintage Pepsi Cola cooler from which customers get sodas. A cheese grater, powered by an old electric motor, holds a place of honor by the front door. This is the machine that shaved the hard cheese that has been sprinkled on the pizzas for so many years.

The buzzer attached to the front door never seems to stop sounding as a steady stream of customers comes to pick up their orders.

De Santis, who lives above the pizzeria, grew up in Highlandtown on South Conkling Street. He went to Our Lady of Pompei School, Calvert Hall and the University of Baltimore, where he played soccer. He owned a 7-Eleven franchise at Aliceanna Street and Broadway but gave up that business.

"I'd always come in here and liked the pizza," De Santis says. "I kinda asked if the owners would ever be willing to sell and things just happened from there. That was eight years ago."

Matthew's secret is its tomato pie. The small version (8 inches) goes for $3.90 and the Italian cheese is a dime more. A 10-inch version, the largest pie Matthew's makes, is $4.20.

"What we make here is a pie," De Santis says. "The dough is like Italian bread with tomato sauce floating on top with finely grated cheese. Would I say it's Parmesan cheese? No. But it's like that and most people wouldn't know the difference. We can also put on Mozzarella cheese, too."

The original owner, whose oil portrait still hangs atop the shop's counter, was a Gough Street baker whose ovens first produced the tomato pies.

His first shop was around the corner and he moved to the more visible Eastern Avenue location in 1947. Matthew's sits in the middle of the block, just across the street from the huge 1920s marquee of the Patterson movie theater.

Matthew's kitchen is small but productive. "I couldn't believe it," De Santis says. "On Good Friday we sold 350 pizzas. Not bad for a little place like this."

zTC He has two ovens and a dough-making trough that looks as if it could be a squared-off bathtub. A metal baker's rack holds dozens of round cake pans.

L "You'd almost think we were making birthday cakes," he says.

The dough and tomato sauce (a very good recipe with chunks of stewed tomato) is made fresh each day.

The recipe for the crusty, bread-like dough is Matthew's secret. It is also a municipal treasure in a town that is not well regarded for the excellence of its pizza.

Matthew's remains fixed in its ways. There is absolutely no delivery. The pizza is served on a thick cardboard dish that could almost be a pie plate.

Does Matthew's offer you a cardboard box for takeout? No.

"Nobody's ever missed a box either," De Santis says. "They never have. We just wrap our pies in white bakers' paper. Remember, we began as a bakery."

On a recent weekday afternoon, Matthew's was filled with people who all seemed to know each other. The happy eaters reached for their own Pepsis and root beers from the cooler (Matthew's doesn't sell the fancy bottled Italian waters). The menu does include nonpizza items, mainly spaghetti and subs, but most people stick to the house specialty -- the tomato pie.

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