Once students pass the illustrious FitzRandolph Gate and enter the suburbia of Princeton, N.J., they are greeted by a town full of food and shopping. For the past 86 years, the town has been partly defined by one historic establishment: Conte’s Pizza and Bar.
In 1936, Sebastiano Conte built a bar on Witherspoon Street. The business slowly expanded as he introduced sandwiches and food into the menu. By the late 1940s, Conte’s bar wasn’t able to make ends meet, which inspired Sebastiano to try his next venture: selling pizza. With no pizza spots in town, locals were forced to travel long distances for a pie — a problem he wanted to fix.
Every Thursday, Sebastiano paid a baker from New York City to come down to Princeton and teach him how to make pizza. Although Mrs. Conte initially opposed as the family was struggling financially, Sebastiano insisted that it would help the restaurant. In 1950, Conte’s officially sold its first pizza pie. Since then, Princeton residents have enjoyed pizza made using the exact same recipe that first inspired Sebastiano Conte.
I had the privilege of speaking to Cynthia Lucullo Astrom, one of Sebastiano’s granddaughters and the third-generation owner of Conte’s Pizzeria. She has worked for the restaurant since her 13th birthday. Conte’s Pizzeria is almost entirely staffed by family and close friends of the extended Conte family.
When asked about how the pizza has shifted over time, Astrom said, “It's all the same recipe… my joke ends up being that the only thing that’s changed are the prices.” Speaking from my personal experience, that recipe still works wonders. I went to Conte’s for the second time in mid-September and was once again impressed by the quality of their pizza. The crust is thin and crispy; the cheese is rich and flavorful; and the sauce brings it all together into a perfect bite. My personal advice is to get sausage on top, as their homemade mix is some of the best I’ve ever had.
Not only is the pizza recipe the same, but Conte’s has kept most of their original charm intact. The restaurant is situated in the same house where the business first opened and still has its original bar, iconic dark green sign, and white tables.
What’s even more impressive than Conte’s incredible pie is how ingrained the restaurant is in Princeton’s culture — not Princeton University, but rather, the town beyond. Many locals can be found there at least once a week, often in the same exact chairs with the same exact order. According to Astrom, roughly “80%-85% [of diners] every single night are regular customers.”
It looks like Conte’s great reputation reaches beyond Princeton — families from all over New Jersey stop by to enjoy a slice. In fact, some regulars come from over 45 minutes away every week, according to Astrom.
However, customers don’t just enjoy the food. Rather, they’ve also served to help make Conte’s the institution it is today. For years, they’ve supported and embraced the business. Everyone in town knows and values the restaurant, a sentiment that its current staff are very thankful for. “We are forever grateful towards our customers,” Astrom said. “It's been a very nice ride.”
Though Princeton has evolved over the years, Conte’s Pizzeria has remained a constant. Elena Bruno, Astrom’s sister and another longtime employee, has so much well-deserved pride in the restaurant’s legacy and success. When asked about what makes Conte’s special, she said, “I mean, people describe it as an institution because the food is consistent. There's nothing that changes here. We've ordered from the same supplier for years, and people will wait. There are times that [the line is] out the door like crazy.”
Many Princeton students — possibly including you — have never been to Conte’s, but should try it immediately. A straight 15 minute walk from Nassau Hall, it is bustling with energy every night of the week. Although they don’t accept Paw Points, an average portion is around six dollars per person if you go as a group — an incredible deal for several slices of world-class pizza.
“I’m just happy my grandfather’s legacy continues,” Elena Bruno said. Sebastiano Conte would for sure be proud of his restaurant, as what started as a small handmade bar has come to define a town for almost a century. At this point, the two have become intertwined. The town of Princeton is not the same without Conte’s.
Alistair Wright is a contributing writer for The Prospect in the Class of 2027. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.