Every afternoon for the last few decades, people have waited impatiently to get close to Paul and Ralph Deuterio.
The brothers work the counter at Galleria Umberto on Hanover Street, which is famous for two things: its square pizza slices, and the long line to get one.
The Deuterios, like the North End pizzeria their parents started in 1965 after the family emigrated from Italy, are neighborhood celebrities at this point. Paul, 71, and Ralph, 63, have been working at the restaurant for as long as they can remember.
And to watch them operate behind the well-worn counter — as thousands of hungry customers have over the years — is like looking back in time. And in a way, it is.
Umberto’s remains intentionally unchanged. "People go downtown to see the skyscrapers and come here to see the ruins,” Paul jokes.
The original restaurant was around the corner on Parmenter Street, but since the Hanover Street location opened in 1974, what you see is what was seen then. About the only new décor is a James Beard Award, which was put on the wall a couple of years ago after the restaurant was named one of "America’s Classics.”
The pace in Umberto’s matches the interior decoration; it is unhurried, unmodern, a place where you need to set aside some extra time. The line forms shortly after the doors open at 10:45 a.m., and usually doesn’t break until the doors close at 2:30 p.m.
Or it ends when they run out of pizza, which can happen well before that. That’s what makes standing in line at Umberto’s somewhat of an anxious experience. As you wait — and the smells make your stomach come alive — you have to watch the Deuterios, and their body language, for signs of trouble. It’s like keeping an eye on a flight attendant during turbulence.
At any moment, one of them may yell out the news you don’t want to hear from the back of the line.
From the moment Ralph arrives at the restaurant at 4 a.m. each day to begin making the dough from scratch, the Deuterios hatch a guess as to how much pizza to make. They base that estimate on the season, or the weather, or the day of the week, or whatever their gut tells them.
"We want to sell out each day because if we don’t it cuts into the profit of the things you did sell,” Paul says.
The Deuterios hustle, but definitely don’t rush, and carve out time to chat with the many daily regulars. They make the short trip to the change drawer off to the side, (a slice is $1.90, it’s cash only, and they are always making change because they don’t accept tips).
They also keep an eye out for anyone trying to break their only rule: phone orders must be taken to go. That regulation was instituted after the dawn of the cellphone era when the brothers figured out people were calling in orders from the back of the line to be able to cut the crowd.
There’s a lot going on here just to get a slice of pizza. But for its many admirers, Umberto’s is not just a slice. The soft center, the charred crust, the ever-so-slightly browned cheese over the raw tomato sauce add up to something magical. There’s a reason the shop’s pizza is a staple on any “best of” list.
Umberto’s sells other food — including paninis, panzarottis, and calzones ― that also is in demand. But the pizza is the star of the show.
It is a slice that is strangely hard to categorize. Many refer to the square slice as Sicilian pizza, though actual Sicilians would disagree with that description, and the Deuterios are from Avellino, which is near Naples.
"We just call it bakery pizza,” Ralph says, "because it’s the kind of pizza you get at a bakery in Italy.”