The unassuming frontage of Pizzeria Espiritu (1722 St. Michael’s Drive, 424-8000) could house any of a thousand interchangeable jumbo slice joints. Umbrellas over the patio seating advertise Bud Light, as does the neon sign in the window. Once you walk through the door, though, it’s another world. The textured ochre walls project the ambiance of a Mediterranean bistro. The ceiling completes the effect with a reproduction of Michelangelo’s famed “The Creation of Adam.”
At first, I wasn’t sure whether to believe the strip-mall exterior or the Italian gem within. After one bite of their Greek pizza, ($10.95-$18.95), loaded with feta, Kalamata olives, spinach, red onion, tangy sauce and mozzarella, I knew that the restaurant is the real deal. Like all children’s movies teach us, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And on the inside, this place serves up some delicious pies. Try the “Espiritu,” their namesake specialty loaded with mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, garlic and four kinds of cheese ($12.95-$22.95). If that doesn’t suit your fancy, try the deceptively named “Light Pizza,” which is free of cheese, but piled high with tomatoes, onion, zucchini, spinach, eggplant, basil and oregano ($13.95-$24.95). All the pizzas range from 10-inch personal pizza sizes to 16-inch monstrosities that take two to finish.
After enjoying my meal as well as my friends’ (which I sampled in the name of journalism), I did a little research and discovered that the reason everything seems so authentic is because it actually is. The owner/head chef hails from northern Italy, the vegetables come from local farms (whenever possible) and the cheese, Grande Mozzarella, is so authentic that it’s rumored to have Mafia ties.
What’s more, the pizzeria is family-owned and operated. In fact, Edwin Martinez, restaurant manager and son of the owner says there are only four or five workers in the restaurant who are not a part of the family. He took over for his father, César Martinez, when all the details of management became too much to deal with. But don’t worry, the patriarch is still active in the kitchen. He brings 35+ years as a professional chef and firsthand knowledge of authentic Italian cuisine direct from Monte Isola, Lombardy. The Alfredo (starting at $11.95) is the creamiest I’ve ever had and the ravioli rosé ($15.95) was another big hit. For those of you looking for a more Santa Fean dish, the green chile Alfredo, which achieved the puzzlingly delicious feat of tasting exactly like the green stuff without being remotely spicy, is recommended.
The elder Martinez’ favorite dish is the linguine with salmon ($17.95). “My passion is cooking, so when you ask me what’s my favorite dish to cook, that’s definitely a hard question to answer,” the head chef says. “The dish consists of salmon, eggplant and sun-dried tomatoes tossed in a light cream sauce on a bed of linguine. The trick is an old family secret! I can always give a sneak peek, so in other words, come on in and enjoy this dish...[it’s]cooked with passion and love,” the hype man continues.
All in all, what makes this place so appealing is its old-fashioned atmosphere concealed in the strip-mall exterior. Given that per its website, the restaurant was voted one of the Top 10 in the nation by Yelp in 2012 and received the “Talk of the Town” award from Urban Spoon—which would make it ideal for the tourist trade—it’s surprising that Espiritu hasn’t moved to a more central locale. When I ask Edwin why he chooses to remain in this location, he explains, “We’ve just been here for so long that even though we could think of a hundred locations that would be better, customers say that they like that it’s so tucked away; it’s like a hidden treasure.”
For this family pizzeria, it’s all about keeping things old-school. Whether it’s the music—Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter play unobtrusively in the background—or the family recipes or the advertising, which Martinez says is pretty much non-existent, “we get customers by word of mouth,” he reflects. “We do it the old-fashioned way.”