by Charles McGuigan
Santos Contreras left his home in the coastal city of La Union, El Salvador when he was just fourteen years old. From birth, he had witnessed one dictatorial regime after another intimidate, torture, rape, and murder thousands of liberal dissenters in his homeland. After securing a visa, Santos moved to Dallas, Texas, where he attended school, studying electronics. To make ends meet, he went to work as a landscaper.
Five years after arriving in America, Santos came to Richmond, where he worked for his cousin, Mario Contreras, who owns Anthony’s Italian Pizza in Mechanicsville. After three years there, he went to work for Piccola Italy Pizza and Subs where he spent the next fourteen years. And then it was on to Vinny’s Italian Grill in Short Pump. All the while, working in the back of the house, Santos was learning everything there was to know about running a successful restaurant.
“I’ve been making pizzas for a long time,” Santos tells me. We sit at one of several tables in the dining room that is dominated by a wall mural featuring a crazed-looking pizza chef. “I’ve been making pizzas for twenty-nine years,” he says.
During those long years, Santos wasn’t just making pizzas and other Italian cuisine. When he wasn’t working in the restaurants, he was experimenting in his own kitchen, which he turned into a kind of pizza dough lab. He understood that pizzas are only as good as their crust.
My touchstone for pizza has always been the fare that comes out of the brick ovens of Marra’s at the corner of Pierce Street and East Passyunk Avenue in the Italian heart of South Philly. It’s thin-crusted pie smeared with San Marzano sauce and topped with a generous portion of fresh mozzarella, all drizzled down with virgin olive oil, which equals ecstasy in terms of taste and texture.
Zorba’s Express leaves a streak of 24-karat gold on that touchstone. Which is no small praise.
I follow Santos into the kitchen, where he and his brother, Jose Contreras, begin molding clumps of dough into palm-sized hemispheres that they sprinkle with flour and lower to a large stainless steel tabletop. These half-balls of dough, which look for all the world like giant white mushroom caps, will be coaxed into a thin crust, slathered with tomato sauce, or white sauce, then covered with cheese and an assortment of toppings. But the secret to this New York-style pizza in in the crust. And Santos guards the recipe for the dough as if it were a highly classified document.
“I’m the only one who knows how to make it,” says Santos. “And I don’t let anybody else make it. It was my own idea, and my pizzas are even better than my cousin Mario’s. I spend a long time on the pizza dough.”
The sauce he prepares is also a family secret. “And we use the best cheeses available,” Santos says.
Every day, Santos and his staff will serve up sixty or more pizzas, along with scores of other Italian dishes. “Every morning I make fresh pizza dough,” says Santos. “And we cut fresh vegetables every day, just for that day. That’s what’s important: everything is always fresh.”
When Santos purchased Zorba’s almost seven years ago, there wasn’t much to the operation. “There was only pizza, little salads and a couple of subs,” he says. “Not even a kitchen, just a pizza oven.”
So the first thing Santos did was create a full kitchen, which allowed him to prepare a vast array of Italian dishes. “We do baked spaghetti, lasagna, fettucine Alfredo, linguini, eggplant parmigiana, manicotti, stuffed shells, baked ziti, ravioli, tortellini,” Santos says. “And all kinds of subs, and a lot of salads. And our calzones and Stromboli.” A single Zorba’s Stromboli, the size of a deflated football, a golden shell of baked dough stuffed with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, ham, ground beef, onions and cheese, easily feeds three people with fairly hearty appetites.
Zorba’s even offer desserts, including cannoli and tiramisu, and, of course, their signature garlic knots. “We are a full-service Italian restaurant,” says Santos. “That’s why we needed the kitchen.”
Shortly after building out the kitchen, Santos constructed a full dining area, with comfortable seating and a rest room. “I wanted people to be able to come in and enjoy their meal right here,” he says, while acknowledging that the vast majority of orders are to-go, or for home-delivery.
His staff includes his brother, Jose, who works every single day, and is reluctant to take any time off. “Jose comes in very early, even before I arrive,” say Santos. “He never leaves, and when I try to give him a day off he says, ‘No.’”
Anyone’s who’s ever had a meal from Zorba’s brought to their home knows Chris, who is the consummate delivery guy. Then there’s one of Santos’s distant cousins, Nosli, and two of his three children, Marizza and Manny, who pinch-hit when necessary.
Santos and I step outside the restaurant and take a seat at one of the four tables for outdoor dining.
“The neighborhood and the people here are amazing,” Santos says. “They are really good people, and they love my stuff, they love my pizza. I’m happy that I’ve got good neighbors, and they love the stuff I make. To have people love what I prepare for them, makes it all worthwhile. And there may come a time when I open another Zorba’s Express somewhere else in the city. But the Bellevue location will always be my home.”
Mon-Thu, 11 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 11 am-11pm; Sun, Noon-10 pm
4026 MacArthur Avenue
Richmond, Virginia 23227