TOPSFIELD — It’s the scissors that turn grown-ups into kids.
Customers see the sign – “Famous Boston Garden Pizza” – but that could mean anything, and so they approach the glass, skeptical, hopeful, and look down at the pizza. Square. Sicilian. Cheese dripping off the sides.
The heart begins to race with anticipation, nostalgia, disbelief, until their eyes find them — the scissors, the giant metal shears, marinated in the oil of more than 8 millions slices.
It still exists! Boston Garden pizza still exists! But at the Topsfield Fair?
Twenty years ago this month, the Bruins and Celtics began their final seasons in the Boston Garden, that lovely old mess of a building.
Long gone are the obstructed-view seats, the smoke-stained walls, the wooden seats covered in countless layers of industrial-grade yellow paint. Like the Central Artery and the elevated Green Line train tracks that used to border it, all that’s left of the Garden now is memory.
But once a year, in a very specific way, it is possible to smell the old Garden, to taste it even, in the form of a square slice of pizza cut with some old metal shears.
The Valentis, an old Italian family originally from the North End that ran the pizza concession inside the old Garden and runs it now at Topsfield, have seen shocked reactions countless times from behind the counter of their little booth at the fair. And they’ve sat through endless tales of Garden memories, because reminiscing about the Boston Garden is one of New England’s favorite pastimes.
For four decades at the Garden, the Valentis were famous for the incredible speed at which they worked. During Bruins intermissions, they sold about a slice a second, fired off dripping hot on napkins because plates took too long. They were even more famous for the way they cut the sheets of pizza, with giant metal shears.
When the Fleet Center – now the TD Garden – opened, the Valentis were not a part of it. When the new management found out they didn’t have contract, only a handshake, the writing was on the wall, said Anthony Valenti, 88, who ran the stand from 1957 until the Garden closed in 1995.
The family had some conversations about moving into the new place, but said they couldn’t come close to affording the rent. “And they wanted us to serve our pizza in a box, and part of the experience was having the cheese dripping off the napkin,” said Alfred Valenti, 92, Anthony’s brother, who worked the stand off-and-on through the years.
But a few years before the Garden closed, Alfred’s son, Frank Valenti, 70, opened a concession at the Topsfield Fair, serving the family’s beloved recipe –dough from Bova’s bakery in the North End stuffed into the corners of the rectangular trays that are so old and black they look dirty even when clean; a special sweet “gravy” made from a base of San Benito Diciotto marinara sauce.
When the Garden closed, the recipe, and the giant shears – which allowed them to cut down on the cheese when it was piping hot, as opposed to a knife or pizza wheel which would drag the hot cheese – lived on at the fair.
Each year at the fair, the pizza triggers double-takes, disbelief, and endless conversations about the old Garden. Which is fine with the Valentis, because few loved that dirty old barn like they did.
“When the Garden closed, I felt lost. That was my life,” said Anthony Valenti, who made a trip to Topsfield with his brother Alfred and a few other family members on a recent day to sample the family recipe and tell stories. “I still dream about the Garden. Honest to God. I dream about going to pick up the shells at Bova’s.”
Valenti has only been to the “new Garden” once, and hated it. Too corporate, he says. Too stale. Too clean. No character.
“In the old Garden, the players would come to the pizza stand before they even went to the locker room,” he says.
Bruins great Milt Schmidt was a regular and a friend, Valenti said, and Celtics legend John Havlicek was his best customer. “They’d all come up and eat before the gates opened. Larry Bird. Johnny Bucyk. The girls from the circus. Everyone. The only ones who wouldn’t eat the pizza were the girls from the Ice Capades because they didn’t want to get fat.”
Valenti said that Bobby Orr, another regular, once chartered a plane from Toronto just to make it to a benefit fundraiser for his ailing father, Anthony “Rip” Valenti, a well-known boxing promoter who ran a ticket concession near the Garden for years. (Valenti Way in the West End is named in his honor.)
In all his years serving pizza, Valenti learned a lot about Boston and its fans. And when it came to pizza consumption, there was a clear winner: Bruins fans demolished Celtics fans.
“Celtics fans would go to dinner before they came. They’d be wearing gowns,’’ Valenti said. “Bruins fans were digging for quarters.”
Valenti loved when the fight crowds came to the Garden, hated the circus – “All anyone wanted was cotton candy, and the whole place smelled like elephants” – but says there was one event that dwarfed all others at his pizza stand: the high school hockey state championships. “The kids were crazy! We couldn’t keep up.”
When Valenti started working the stand, it was supposed to be for a week. That week turned into nearly 40 years, from a time of 25-cent slices to $2.25. (He said the Garden would never let him sell for less than the price of the hot dog vendors, so he went up with them.)
Now, a slice at the new Garden will run you $9. But on Monday night at the Bruins home opener, when the TD Garden unveiled the first stage of a planned $70 million renovation to the concourse levels and concessions, there was a small tribute to the Valentis and the old days of the Garden.
At the new pizza concession, they cut the pies with scissors.
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Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.