Sam’s ‘Secret Recipe’ For Success

Hannah Selinger
Hannah Selinger
Hannah Selinger

There’s no excess of good pizza on the East End, which is why so many of us are dedicated Sam’s patrons. The East Hampton restaurant, which opened in 1947, was the pet project of then-owner Sam Nasca (who actually worked behind the bar for about 30 years). Among his many legacies — pizza included —Nasca left behind an incredible, detailed wood bar, which had been shipped from overseas and which still dominates the small dining room, 71 years later.

In fact, the restaurant, generally speaking, is a nod to deep roots. As he grew older, Nasca passed the restaurant down to his daughter Rose Johnson, who, along with her husband Eric, ran the restaurant until they died. The restaurant was then handed to their son, Tom Johnson, who, in 2007, sold it to longtime Sam’s employee and Irish transplant Graham Quinn.

The building that houses the restaurant — and which occupies a prominent space, neon sign and all, on East Hampton’s Newtown Lane — is still owned by Tom Johnson. In fact, a space that used to be the home of Rose and Eric Johnson was eventually converted into a small restaurant expansion. The bones are as old as the pizza recipe.

“The pizza is the same since 1947,” Marta Quinn, Graham Quinn’s wife, said. “It’s a secret recipe. Only Graham and the chef know the recipe. It’s the same pizza crust. It’s a pizza that needs to rise through the night. It is the same pizza for all of those years.” That pizza, it turns out, has acquired a loyal following.

The restaurant is open daily and year-round, a schedule made possible by its clientele. The miniscule bar (it seats about 10) is almost always full from the moment the restaurant opens at 5 PM. Pizzas, if you’re wondering, come in three sizes and are on the traditional side: thin crust, ample cheese, savory-sweet sauce, and an abundance of optional toppings that recall a New York City ‘za joint.

Graham Quinn began working at Sam’s two decades ago, beginning as a busboy and moving up the ranks to bartender and then manager, before purchasing the business outright. “He was Rose’s right-hand man,” Marta said. The Quinns, who have been married two years, live in East Hampton.

Marta Quinn has been working at Sam’s in some capacity (weekends, these days, since she also holds down a day job) for over a decade. “I try to stay out of it,” she said of her role at Sam’s. “I just help him out backstage. I work there on the weekends . . . at nighttime.” She does, however, recognize and greet the regular customers. “You open the door and, eight times out of 10, you know the people coming in,” she said. “We definitely have the summer clientele, and we have the locals that we see two or three times every week, and we have the ones who come every Friday.”

Sam’s is a testament to quality over quantity. The small restaurant seats around 60 and fosters a dedicated following of both locals and seasonal diners. The restaurant’s wood paneling is all original, as are other interior details. Even the neon sign is unique to the Hamptons. Grandfathered in, it’s the only such sign in East Hampton.

“We want to keep the old style,” Quinn said. “The booths we keep re-doing, but the style itself — the design — is the same.” The restaurant’s chef, Augusto Morales, has been a part of the restaurant for a long time, too, contributing to Sam’s Restaurant ethos of consistency and timelessness. They don’t deliver — so you’ll have to visit in person.

But an in-person visit, and a quick one at the bar, is exactly the type of drop-in that’s expected at Sam’s.

Each week The Independent features a local restaurant that has stood the test of time. Each restaurant has been open for over a decade.

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