Sal’s at The Stein, a Faustian Bargain

September 4, 2020

We campus-going Brandeisians are a special sort. You might say that we have a penchant for pain and sacrifice. Every day we are newly reminded of the loss of our clubs, sports and classes. We deal with Q-tips up the nose twice a week. We suffer through Zoom meetings in dorms without A.C. If you are one of the sorry schmucks that decided to come to campus this year, pat yourself on the back and try not to think about the fact that this whole experience is costing you about as much as it did last year, if not more. There is a silver lining to all of this: We’ve got Sal’s pizza on campus this year! 

It is a tarnished silver lining, perhaps, as Sal’s rises from the ashes of a dead Stein. Add that one to the pile of quintessential Brandeis experiences that freshmen aren’t having this year.

Hey, at least our new pizza tastes alright. I wrote a piece about the old Stein pizza months ago (I’m sort of an expert), and I can say with confidence that our new chain pizza is a lot better than the old homemade stuff. I suppose beating the yeasty scrapings from the bottom of the barrel isn’t necessarily hard, but trust me when I say that Sal’s is actually alright. You could say that I am intimately familiar with the brand.

It just so happens that Sal’s is an old pal of mine. The LaFauci clan had been spending its summers up in Salem, NH for decades before Sal’s showed up. That’s right: contrary to their marketing campaign, Sal’s is not actually “straight from Boston’s North End.” The company isn’t even straight from Massachusetts. Founded in 1990 in southern New Hampshire, Sal’s pizza is headquartered just five minutes from the lake where I have been spending my summers since before I could form memories.

You don’t need to perform a side-by-side comparison with a real North End pizza to know that Sal’s doesn’t cut it. The kind of pizza that you can buy in Boston just doesn’t transition well to the quick turnover, chain delivery model. It isn’t gourmet, but it beats Domino’s and Pizza Hut in flavor and quality (if not in price).

I was skeptical that The Stein, like Goldfarb Library’s Starbucks, was merely licensing the Sal’s branding for marketing purposes, but my fears quickly subsided after I tasted the sauce. If nothing else, we are certainly getting the Sal’s sauce!

Sal’s sauce is unique. It is sweeter than some might be used to, as is the American Sicilian way (I don’t actually know if the Lupoli family is Sicilian, but many from Boston are), and this sweetness is a nice pair to the more neutral mozzarella. It is a chunkier sauce, which I used to hate as a child, but I have come to savor the texture of the cooked tomatoes against the toasted crust. It certainly beats the pulverized pasta marinara that they used to drown the pizza in last year, though it may be an acquired taste.

The crust is another high point of the new pizza. In both of my samples, the pizza was actually cooked! If this trend continues, the student body might be able to remove doughy Stein crust from its list of fears. The new crust is spongy with a crisp exterior, like fresh bread. The bottom of the pizza is actually blackened somewhat and coated with cornmeal, which creates an delightfully crispy contrast to the softer ingredients on top. Just as a pizza ought to be, I think.

The cheese itself is decent. It’s probably the same stuff they put on the Sherman pizzas downstairs—rubbery but good when it is hot. Cheese is an ingredient that is really hard to mess up, but it does need to be eaten molten fresh. That is the main problem with the pizza, in fact. The take-out style of Sal’s at The Stein does not lend itself at all to an ideal eating experience. The pizza is still cheap—it doesn’t reheat all that well. While the days are still hot, the idea of picking up a Stein pizza and plopping down on one of the benches is still fresh and exciting. That novelty will be gone by mid-October when the temperature drops off, and the chill rains begin to fall.

I wonder at the longevity of Sal’s. Maybe the freshmen will still get a kick out of it a month from now, but will anybody really want to trudge uphill both ways from East to pick up a pizza that they can hardly even share with their roommate? Seven inches is cute and all, but it isn’t what we used to get from The Stein. 

For all of its old problems, The Stein was the one part of our dining experience that felt like it actually belonged to Brandeis. It was one of the few places where community-building actually happened at this spiteful school, and now it is just a corporate shell. Brandeis can keep Sal’s around if that is what the contract demands, but we should all pray that the rest of The Stein experience comes back when the pandemic is over.

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