Tastes Around Town: Regina Cafe Pizzeria

Regina Cafe Pizzeria, located at the intersection of Union Turnpike and Utopia Parkway, is a student favorite for their fresh slices.
TORCH PHOTO/ J.L. Stephenson

Regina Cafe Pizzeria, located at the intersection of Union Turnpike and Utopia Parkway, is a student favorite for their fresh slices. TORCH PHOTO/ J.L. Stephenson

You could live in New York City for your entire life, eat three meals a day — each at a different restaurant –– and still not be able to visit everything that the city has to offer. As an avid lover of food and culture, I feel I have a personal responsibility to bring forth some of my most glorified culinary experiences and stories from Manhattan and Queens, my adopted borough. Through shared meals you discover individuals ,and through individuals you discover what it means to be human, and in a real sense, to be a New Yorker. 

Jamil Afzali is the perfect example of how the food industry opens the door of culture and American experiences to immigrants in the United States. Afzali, who arrived in the U.S. from Kabul, Afghanistan in 1980 at the age of 10 as a political refugee, has been a proud American citizen since 2016. Raised in Queens and a graduate of Jamaica PS109, he recalls running a paper route before elementary school and how vivid it is to still work in the neighborhood today. “We were the lucky ones,’’ Afzali said, “our whole family landed right here, not scattered, but all together. This is my hometown.” He  emphasizes the word “hometown” because Queens gave him a chance to make something of his future and the futures of the generations in his family which follow him. 

Afzali, who now goes by AJ, manages the corner pizza shop Regina Cafe Pizzeria at the intersection of Union Turnpike and Utopia Parkway. The shop is a St. John’s rite of passage if there’s ever been one. He’s managed the shop for six years now and constantly reiterates the endearing relationship between the shop and St. John’s University. There is nothing overtly unique in taste about the pies or slices at Regina’s, other than the fact that dining there guarantees fresh out of the oven service, crisp crusts and balanced toppings that appear divine when you are deeply craving a slice. The real unique feature about Regina’s and about AJ, is the sense of community the two have regarding St. John’s. AJ provides 15 percent-off coupons to all students who pass into his shop or present a Storm Card. A meal there is affordable ($2.75 a slice) and is a refreshing chance to get off campus, away from the constant droves of students in the St. John’s dining halls. 

AJ, 50, has always cared about this area and about this school. “Kids really know more about pizza and food than adults, you make good, cheap and livable food and they’ll always come back. You try and make a place feel relaxed and like home, the kids respond to that stuff,” Afzali said. 

He understands that Regina’s backbone is the SJU community and that the pizzeria plays a greater role in the collective St. John’s culture. AJ hopes that Regina’s will be a common thread in campus memories even years after graduation, almost akin to a sense of nostalgia. AJ even created t-shirts last fall to give away to incoming freshmen –– a t-shirt which I am proud to own and wear whenever I return home, to display my sense of admiration for my local pizzeria, something every New Yorker simply has to have. I am honored to say that AJ has become a friendly figure to me, as he is to anyone who stops to say hello. Every time I enter Regina’s I am greeted with the same warm welcome that I experienced on freshmen orientation day. 

I made a point to mention to AJ the day I moved onto campus that my first real New York slices were from his shop. He smiled, threw his hands up and laughed, “That’s the stuff right there man, that’s why I do this!” Do yourself a favor, take a slight break from campus, catch some fresh air and head to Regina Cafe Pizzeria for solid slices and an example of the everlasting American dream.