During his 32 years waiting tables at Santarpio’s, Tony Costanzo watched almost everything around the East Boston institution change. His customers grew up and got married. Expensive condos sprouted up around Eastie. Last year, the duplex next door almost burned down, threatening to take the old pizza place with it.
But Santarpio’s has stayed pretty much the same: Locals drink red wine out of water glasses at the bar. Sausages sizzle and spit over a charcoal fire in the corner. Cash only. No salads.
And there was Tony, hovering near the jukebox, ready to play a song for you. If you were from Texas, it was “All my Ex’s live in Texas.” If you were Tom Menino after a long day, it was Sinatra.
Now, that too is changing. Costanzo, his 66-year-old knees beginning to betray him, retired last week, more than a century after Santarpio’s began serving thin crust pizzas — no slices — and grilling skewers of meat and sausage.
In this historically diverse neighborhood now struggling with rising rents and evictions — a place plagued, some feel, by its own progress — Santarpio’s is a refuge. And Costanzo, with a bottomless well of time-worn jokes spilling out of him, was straight out of old school Eastie.
“If I didn’t know you by your name, I knew you by what you eat and drink,” Costanzo said, sitting at one of the wooden tables under a photo of Tom Brady, arms raised in triumph. “I memorize orders; it’s a lot easier than memorizing names.”
That blond guy? Half a carafe of wine and garlic pizza. The daughter of the couple who met at Santarpio’s thanks to his introduction? Beer, much to his dismay.
“She asked me for a drink the other day, and I said, ‘Yeah right,’” said Costanzo, not believing she was legal age. “You forget that you watch these people grow up. I met her when she was in a baby carriage.”
Tony was unforgettable in his own right. Five-foot-seven, with a bald head, glasses, and a waistline that he swears “once used to be 32 inches,” he walked around with an apron adorned with dozens of pins given to him by customers.
Adrian Madaro, a state representative for East Boston, brought his girlfriend, Ariel Glantz, to Santarpio’s for their first date. If there was any chance of an awkward silence, Tony crushed it, fast.
Glantz, Costanzo recalled, came in and placed her order: a salad.
“It’s East Boston honey, you don’t get salads here,” Costanzo said with the smile that always accompanies his one-liners.
At least you didn’t back then. Step off the escalator up from the Maverick T Stop, and you’ll be greeted by signs offering “fresh salads, hot paninis.” At Santarpio’s, nobody needs to see a menu.
Well, almost no one.
‘If I didn’t know you by your name, I knew you by what you eat and drink.’Tony Costanzo, waiter at Santarpio’s for 32 years
During a recent lunch service, a young guy wearing a shirt that said something about robots walked in, looking confused. No one will wait on you hand and foot at Santarpio’s, which some locals say is part of the charm.
He asked for some slices.
Lefty, a longtime bartender and barbecue wrangler — so named, Costanzo said, “because he never does anything right” — set the guy straight.
“We don’t serve slices,” Lefty said, loud enough for the bar to hear. “We don’t.”
The guy hastily ordered a pizza and eventually a beer after being teased for looking like a 12-year-old.
“It’s just some new clientele, but we’ll work with it,” Lefty said. That includes the so-called “yuppies” longtime locals complain about, and hungry construction crews working on new glass and steel condos all over Eastie.
That will have to carry on without Costanzo, who said he would’ve kept working were it not for his knees. “We’ll miss him,” Lefty said, “but it’ll be OK.”
Costanzo said he’ll return to help out, if needed. Or, he’ll stop by to grab his usual: a sausage, garlic, hot pepper pizza — hold the sauce.
Costanzo, who grew up nearby, got the gig when he was a 34-year-old accountant, working a full-time job at John Hancock. His wife set him up with an interview with restaurant owner Frank Santarpio.
He took a couple shifts for the extra cash but was soon laid off by John Hancock.
“Frank approached me and told me not to look too hard” for another job, he said. The stint at Santarpio’s would soon turn into double shifts and then a full-time job.
“I’m eternally in debt to Frank, and everyone here. He made it easier for me to live,” Costanzo said.
When news spread about his retirement, many reached out to thank him. One passerby stopped in during the interview. Tony was especially moved by one message, sent to him via Facebook.
“You served us and [were] always a friendly face, especially during my times of radiation and chemo when I thought I could not have a good time going out . . . things like that make a difference in life,” the customer, Rosa, wrote.
Last Tuesday, Santarpio’s held a retirement/thank you party for Tony. In attendance were Tony’s loyal customers, including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Revere Mayor Brian M. Arrigo.
“It was humbling, incredible, and memorable,” said Costanzo, of the gifts and the recognition. “All I did was serve them food.”Nestor Ramos of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Natasha Mascarenhas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @nmasc_.