– Atlantic City Weekly – October 27, 2020 –
by SCOTT CRONICK
Alicia Santucci has had a lot of pizza in her life.
Her grandparents, the late Joseph and Philomena Santucci, opened the very first Santucci’s Original Square Pizza in Northeast Philadelphia in 1959. Alicia’s father Frank worked in that restaurant since he was 12 years old, getting early outs from high school every day so he could go to the family business and get the dough ready for dinner service.
Frank took over the family business in 1976, maintaining the name and quality of the pizza for more than 40 years at the original location on O Street, where Alicia and her siblings ate and worked.
But Alicia didn’t really decide she wanted to take over the family business until Frank was already closing the original O Street location. But, after meeting her future husband Blake Barabuscio, destiny just kicked in.
“I was destined not to worry about calories from pizza,” says Alicia Santucci, whose family name now sits on the front of 10 different pizzerias, mostly in Philadelphia, under various monikers. “And I guess it was destiny to end up running the family business. When Blake and I went to talk to my father if he would consider allowing us to take the name and open a location in South Philadelphia, we were only engaged. To our surprise, he gave us his blessing. We asked if he would come on as a silent partner to teach us what he knew and he was so happy to help build the business for the third generation.”
So Alicia and Blake opened their first Santucci’s Original Square Pizza on North Broad Street in Philly in 2011, an operation that has expanded to five Santucci’s Original Square pizza locations, including their most recent on Ventnor Avenue in Ventnor.
“It looks Sicilian but it’s a medium crust … not too thin, not too thick,” Alicia says. “We haven’t changed a thing when it comes to the pizza. In fact, we kept my father on as a partner in all of the locations. He is our quality control expert. He goes to one of our locations several times a week and his main focus is the pizza and cleanliness. If the pizza isn’t right and the place isn’t spotless, we hear about it immediately.
“He has given his blessing as long as the pizza doesn’t change. That’s what he cares about most. He doesn’t care what color our walls are, if we have a liquor license or not, if we play country or rock music … as long as the pizza doesn’t change he’s content. And why would we change it? You don’t fix what’s not broken. The pizza is excellent.”
The Ventnor location is the Santucci’s Original Square Pizza brand’s biggest location yet. Situated in a former hardware store building, the completely renovated Ventnor restaurant is huge. Broken into three areas, the Ventnor Santucci’s features a large indoor dining room downstairs with a bar that seats more than 30 people as its centerpiece. Outside of the main dining room, Santucci’s offers outdoor seating, some which is covered right outside its entrance and more that extends onto the street. Upstairs, an enormous, gorgeous, 3,500-square-foot outdoor deck overlooks Ventnor Avenue and features two more bars. There’s also a mini arcade with video and skill games such as air hockey to keep the kiddies busy. In total, Santucci’s Ventnor can seat more than 300 people (during non-pandemic times) and encompasses more than 6,000 square feet.
“No matter where we go, the community has welcomed us with open arms,” Alicia says. “They love our pizza and love all of our food. We are a family business that offers a family environment. It’s a fun place to come and have lunch or dinner with friends and family. It’s casual. It’s not pretentious. It’s not expensive. Wherever we open, we want to be part of the community.”
Getting back to the pizza, Santucci’s offers 17-inch large ($19) and 9-inch personal ($10) sizes and can be topped with everything from homemade meatballs to long hots and banana peppers. There are also specialty pies, including The Works ($13, $22) with extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms and onions, and BBQ or buffalo chicken ($14.75, $27).
“Square pizza right now is trendy,” Alicia says. “But we were the original square pizza in Philly, so I guess we were always ahead of the trend. Even places that never offered square pizza before are trying to come up with ways to latch on to the square pizza craze.”
The famous Santucci’s dough can also be found wrapped around fresh ingredients in their stromboli ($15 to $16), including the classic pepperoni and cheese, provolone cheese and spinach, cheesesteak with provolone cheese and onions, and The Uncle Joe Coke with provolone, soppressata, salami and hot capicola.
For a “gourmet” take, check out Santucci’s flatbreads ($14 to $15) with Santucci’s dough and flavors including mushroom, roasted pepper and chicken.
“Ventnor is our biggest location in size as well as in menu,” Alicia says. “Our other locations don’t have as many items, but overall we found that simple is the way to go. You don’t have to complicate things to be successful.”
Popular sandwiches are all served on Aversa’s Bakery seeded rolls and include their Mama’s Meatball ($11) with mild provolone and parmesan cheeses; their chicken cutlet ($11) with mild provolone and spinach; and their cheesesteaks ($11) with fresh ribeye and choice of cheese. If you really want to do it right, all of their sandwiches can be served on garlic bread for just a buck more. It’s worth it.
Santucci’s even has a limited pasta menu with items such as spaghetti and meatballs ($15), Grandpa Joe’s chicken parm ($15) with spaghetti, and penne alla vodka ($15).
But nothing goes better with pizza than some snacks. Starters include a beautiful antipasta board ($19) with cured meats, artisan cheeses, olives, roasted peppers and veggies; their signature short rib gravy fries with provolone whiz ($12) featuring short rib braised in house for eight hours; and their awesome wings (six for $10, 12 for $17, 25 for $30) with a wide array of homemade sauces, including mild, hot, garlic parm, smoked BBQ and honey chipotle.
One of the biggest surprises might be that Santucci’s sells more salads than anything on the menu except for pizza. Whether you choose their classic Caesar ($12); their Farmers ($12) with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, carrots and balsamic vinaigrette; or the Granny Smith Apple ($14) with lettuce, gorgonzola, pickled red onions, candied walnuts, celery, apple slices and apple cider vinaigrette, you can’t go wrong.
“I think the salads are so popular because, like everything else here, we make all of the dressings in house,” Alicia says.
Save some room for dessert. Santucci’s offers cannoli ($5) made in house as well as an array of Aversa’s Bakery desserts such as ricotta cheesecake, triple chocolate cake and, for the season, pumpkin cheesecake.
Santucci’s also has a full liquor license so they can offer a wide array of great cocktails, including their signature lemonade ($9) with Tito’s vodka in a mason jar and the Italian Stallion Margarita ($12) with Espolon Blanco Tequila, blood orange juice, Campari and orange juice. There are 16 beer taps — available upstairs and downstairs — that currently include crafts from Double Nickel, Cape May and Firestone Walker, and more in bottles and cans. Santucci’s is hoping to grow its nighttime bar business, so they have been bringing in live music 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays, and 7 to 10 p.m. Fridays to Sundays. On Nov. 10, Santucci’s will start a comedy night that will be offered twice a month on Tuesdays featuring a host comic and open-mic.
“In the summer, we had so many people from the Philadelphia area tell us they were so glad we were here because we gave them a sense of normalcy during the pandemic,” Alicia says. “And we want to have locals feel the same way about us. We are here for them all year round and will offer local specials to really show our appreciation for them.”
Santucci’s Original Square Pizza is all about family. That’s why Alicia’s brothers Frank Jr. and Anthony are involved in their Roxborough and Broad Street locations, and their first franchised location on the boardwalk in Ocean City is owned by Marc Bongiovanni, a longtime friend of Blake’s who is like a member of the family.
“My brothers and other family members have joined the business because we have outgrown ourselves,” Alicia says. “We are all hands on deck. Even though our Ocean City location is franchised, Blake and I are always there. I love working there while listening to waves crash onto the beach. We started with a list of dream locations, and we are opening them one by one. We planned on Wildwood, and the pandemic has put that on hold for now, but that is a dream location where we know we can be successful. The ultimate plan is to keep growing the brand through our own locations and franchises. We want to reach into new communities and make the Santucci’s name a household name wherever you live.”