As the ’90s turned into the early aughts, I went off to college in Hartford outside of the Sovereignty of the New England Kingdom of Greek Pizza and learned about other styles. My roommate from Brooklyn showed me the New York pizza at Dom DeMarco’s Di Fara, and we took road trips down to New Haven and tried the coal-fired legends Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and Sally’s Apizza. I dated a girl from Providence who brought forth the unexpected delights of the scallion-flecked grilled pizza at Al Forno, and another from Chicago who opened my eyes to the caramelized crusted pizzas at Pequod’s and the Lou Malnati’s deep-dish. And after college living back in Boston, I realized legendary local places like Santarpio’s and Galleria Umberto had been there the whole time, a commuter rail train ride away.
Meanwhile, as I became an insufferable learned person cultivating a cosmopolitan pizza palate, Bertucci’s started to fly a little too close to the capitalist sun. After sticking around Massachusetts for 15 years, they began to expand rapidly, and by the early aughts there were over 100 locations from Mass to Illinois and Florida. And as they expanded, a typical story emerged. Customers complained that the product was no longer the same, the new spots lacked the atmosphere of the original dozen Massachusetts locations, and that menus were now chasing trends and lacked consistent quality. By 2011, Bertucci’s, like many of the mid-level sit down chain restaurants across America, began losing money, and started getting desperate, bringing back original dishes and trying out different concepts, but the novelty eight ball outcome wasn’t looking favorable. An early warning sign: At the end of March, 2018, on a snowy Sunday night after service, the Wellesley Bertucci’s quietly shut down after almost 30 years. At the time, they said the cause for the closure was “lease-related.” In a letter to customers who were members of their loyalty program, which is apparently called “Dough Nation,” they urged them to visit the Needham location “to satisfy your craving for our rolls, pizza, pasta and more.” Then on April 17, a bombshell dropped. Owing $120 million in debt obligations, Bertucci’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and closed 15 more of its locations.
Tributes poured in all over social media. And then Boston Globe restaurant critic Devra First fired off a couple shots of her own. “I hate to break it to you,” she said in a column. “Objectively speaking, the rolls are not that good.” Her argument was basically that the bread in America is now so damn good as bakers have gone back to the Old World ways of making it using artisanal ingredients, etc., etc., Good Food Revival, etc., that judged in today’s context, the roll is just meh, and the payoff is really just the temperature at which they’re served (she also described the rolls as having “strange mottled skin, like a freckled person with a tan,” which is wonderful).
The backlash against First’s declaration was swift (though in our social media age, isn’t that the only kind of backlash?), but I kept thinking that her not unfounded observation about the state of rolls and bread could also apply to the state of pizza. When I first tried Bertucci’s in the early ’90s, I didn’t know the way pizza was supposed to taste because I only knew from the Greek-style I was raised on. With its brick ovens, Bertucci’s was at least trying to show us that there was something beyond the oil-slicked, oregano-spackled bland world we knew.
It wasn’t close to a game changer, a revolution starter like Pizzeria Bianco or Una Pizza Napoletana or Pizzeria Mozza. And it wasn’t even as good as something like Motorino, the more modern updated brick-oven chain. But Bertucci’s played a crucial role in acting as a gateway out of Greek pizza hegemony for thousands of New Englanders. It was a bridge chain, the type of regional place with relatively high standards born in the ’80s/’90s and becoming more and more rare as we enter into the Corporate Artisanal Era, where chains of 20 restaurants all try and give off the impression that they’re singular independent joints created by local chefs because they serve mezcal and use the word “salumeria.”