The Pizza Rivalry That's Keeping a Dying Beach Community Afloat

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The Pizza Rivalry That's Keeping a Dying Beach Community Afloat

Salisbury Beach, a once-bustling post-war seaside destination, is now a depressed ghost town—but the pizza keeps people coming back.
November 12, 2015, 5:00pm

Take a road trip up or down the Eastern seaboard and you're bound to pass through several once-great seaside resort towns. Daytona Beach in Florida, Atlantic City and Asbury Park in New Jersey, Revere Beach in Massachusetts, Hampton Beach in New Hampshire, Old Orchard Beach in Maine—they're all slightly different sides of the same filthy gutter coin. The same sketchy carnies running the arcades, the same ponytailed crackpot airbrushing "U+ME 4EVA" on ill-fitting t-shirts, the same shitty seafood fried in oil that hasn't been changed out for months.

I grew up in northern Massachusetts, next to a place called Salisbury Beach, which is mostly like the aforementioned shitholes (if not a shithole), boasting arcades that no one goes to outside of July and August and where the best prize is a stale, 13-year-old miniature Tootsie Roll; music venues that book white-guy blues bands who do bad white-guy blues covers of actual good blues songs; a handful of the worst (and judging by the amount of teeth in the heads of the clientele, probably the most dangerous) bars on the planet; a bunch of drugged-out zombies accusing other drugged-out zombies of stealing the communal Ziploc baggie full of half-smoked cigarette butts. Doesn't sound great, right?

Well, that's where you'd be wrong. Because right when it seems as though you've stepped into an episode of The Walking Dead and you begin to fear that your face might be chewed off by a gaunt druggie wearing a threadbare ICP hoodie, making you wonder why the fuck you came to Salisbury Beach in the first place, you notice a few other people who appear not jacked up on angel dust eating pizza and talking about how much they wish there were fewer seagulls in the world. These people are not great, but the pizza they're eating is.

Known colloquially as "beach pizza," it's the best slice I've ever eaten, and the only reason Salisbury Beach hasn't fallen into the Atlantic yet. There are two shops that peddle what is essentially the same pie: Cristy's, which strictly deals in pizza; and Tripoli, which started as a bakery in Lawrence, MA in 1924 and has been managed by one member or another of the Zappala family ever since. Both have been mainstays on the Salisbury strip since the mid-1940s.

Post-war Salisbury Beach looked a lot different than current-day Salisbury Beach. A bustling community then, its clubs hosted Sinatra and Liberace (not at the same time, alas), and there was an amusement park that was home to one of the oldest roller coasters ever built. Now the closest thing you'll find to family-friendly entertainment is a hulking, gaudy strip club seemingly modeled after the Acropolis.

Gilded Age Salisbury Beach was even more formidable, playing host to the kind of people who can only be described as characters from an Edith Wharton novel (think The Age of Innocence, not Ethan Frome). The beach was also the site of the first modern roller coaster—the Sky Rocket—which ran from 1922 to 1955. And the time between the two World Wars saw good times, too: Before Sinatra and Liberace gigged on the Atlantic shores, acts like Glenn Miller, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong were counted among those to perform in Salisbury.

But things change. The Sky Rocket—one of the most iconic structures on the East Coast, let alone Salisbury Beach—was razed in 1976. Shaheen's Fun-O-Rama, a micro-amusement park that had been a lynchpin of the beach economy since its opening in 1954, closed its doors in 1990. Pirate's Park, another micro-amusement park and the last thing to distinguish Salisbury Beach as a resort town, ceased operations in 2004. And it's probably not coincidental that each major shift in Salisbury Beach's economic infrastructure ran parallel to serious-to-very-serious recessions. Economic downturn be damned, though—Cristy's and Tripoli persevered.

The pizza itself is about as basic as it gets. Super-thin crust, the perfect amount of tomato sauce, and finished with a light sprinkling of mozzarella. (There's so little cheese on the pie that most people order it with a slice of provolone or cheddar on top.) It's cooked on massive rectangular sheet pans and cut into squares. While you can order an individual slice, no one ever does. Everyone I know gets at least three, and I always get a "box of eight with extra."

But whenever two restaurants offer the same food in the same hood—think American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit—loyalties develop. In Salisbury Beach, every patron has an opinion on which shop slings a superior square.

So I took a trip up to Salisbury Beach recently to ask pizza-eaters the burning question: Cristy's or Tripoli?

"Cristy's and Tripoli are like twins: everyone has an opinion on who's cuter," said a man named Carl. "And I'd rather date Cristy."

"It's all about that sweet sauce at Tripoli," said another guy named Pete. I tend to agree with Pete—I'm not sure what the secret ingredient is (marjoram, perhaps), but my feet are firmly planted in the Tripoli camp. That's not to say that if someone handed me a "box of eight with extra" from Cristy's I wouldn't eat it.

Because I would. All of it. In ten minutes.

Cristy's, down the block

Though relations between customers remain somewhat acrimonious, according to Cristy's owner Ron Peredna, no beef exists among the proprietors of the two shops.

"I've had their food," he said. "They put out a good product. I go there, they come here. That's what it's all about. And you know, different tastes for different people."

When I asked Peredna why Cristy's has been able to weather the economic and infrastructural storm that seems to continually pound Salisbury Beach, he said, "We stay consistent, and we use top-notch ingredients."

Tripoli's general manager, Matthew Zappala, had as much to say for their own pizza. "Our success is due to loyal customers that enjoy eating a consistent, fresh, quality, made-to-order product, made by great employees."

There's not much written about Salisbury Beach outside of an eponymous volume from the Images of America series. In it, author Pamela Mutch Stevens wrote, "Somewhere, for a brief moment in time, there was a magical place by the seashore known as Salisbury Beach."

Peredna believes wholeheartedly that those days will return.

"Salisbury Beach has potential, a lot of untapped resources. It's a hidden jewel soon to be rediscovered."

If that's true, it will owe a large debt to Cristy's and Tripoli for keeping it afloat.