Pizza nerds everywhere shiver with delight at the mere mention of the greatest pizza cities on Earth. Napoli is where it started and New York is where it transformed, but New Haven fits somewhere in between tradition and adaptation. Between 1880 and 1920, millions of Southern Italians immigrated to the industrial cities of the United States. Most of them made a bunch of money and went right back to Italy but some stayed and gave life in the US a shot. Industrial cities on the late 19th Century (NYC, New Haven, Trenton, Chicago) are now the beacons of American pizza tradition and we must celebrate their significance!
My last trip to New Haven was about 5 years ago when I was touring with my band the Bikini Carwash Company. We played a show in New Haven but the real goal was pizza. I stopped at a cool place called Modern Apizza before the show, a couple historic pizzerias called Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza in between sets, and finally we had takeout from a newish joint called Bar later that night. This pizza was GOOD! So good, in fact, that I have been plotting my return ever since. I’m ashamed that it took so long, but five years and several thousand slices later I was primed for a serious pizza road trip.
We timed our trip carefully so we would arrive at Frank Pepe on Wooster street as it opened its doors at 11:30 AM. Team Alpha (Mark and Jenny from Pizza a Casa plus me) headed up from Brooklyn and Team Beta (SPT tour guide JoAnne, her husband Peter, her father Sid) started from their home base in nearby Fairfield, CT. Even with some yucky traffic, Team Alpha made the trip in about an hour and forty-five minutes. But as we turned onto Wooster Street, all traffic was forgotten and only one thing remained: pizza. Oops, I’m sorry: Apizza. That’s right, New Haven lingo holds dear to the Neapolitan tradition of squeezing words a bit, so the pronunciation is somewhere along the lines of “ah-beetz.” Whatever.
Frank Pepe has a huge coal burning bread oven that was built by the Middleby Company, now popular for their conveyor belt air impingement ovens found in most Dominos and Pizza Hut locations. Back in the early 1900s, they were building big masonry units that required their own structures. You can see in the photo below that there’s an addition to the back of the building. That’s where the oven lives! The chimney is all the way in the back of the building. If you look really close, you can see a vertical white line in the brick to the left of the chimney under the tree where there was a second addition to incorporate more storage space onto the property.
We decided to keep a standard order of a large pie with mozzarella and one white pie with clams at each pizzeria. Frank Pepe allegedly started throwing clams on the pizza in the 1960’s and it became his trademark pie. Both pies were great, but the white clam pie was magical. No mozzarella, just olive oil + grated cheese (not sure exactly which but tasted like a soft Parmesan) + oregano + tons of garlic. The balance was perfect and I’m a big fan of this dense-chewy crust. New Yorkers would be into this except for the fact that instead of cutting a pie into eight big slices, it’s more like 12 skinny minnies. No problem, you’re just allowed to eat more of them!
We made our way chronologically, Pepe’s opened in 1925 and stop number two opened in 1934: Modern Apizza. This was a favorite on my first trip to New Haven. Unlike Pepe’s, Modern fuels their brick oven with oil. I don’t know much about these ovens, but apparently many coal ovens were converted to oil and natural gas in the early 1930’s. We ordered the two standard pies and added sliced meatball to half of the mozzarella pizza because it looked delicious on someone’s table as we walked in. It tasted as good as it looked and fulfilled all my greasy cheesy needs.
Our remaining two pizzerias both opened at 5 PM, so we had some time to kill. Right after a stroll around the Yale campus, we made a mad dash to Sally’s and sat down before the place packed up. Wow, what a vibe in there! The oven is very similar to Pepe’s but almost looks like it was slapped together; some exterior bricks are white and some are red. But who cares, it’s what’s inside that counts and the inside of that oven was all HOT! Judging by the way these pies were coming out all day, I’d say these ovens aren’t blazing at 850 degrees F but more around the 650 – 750 range. The crust is dark and rich, with some more burn than char at this stop. Decent clam pie but excellent mozzarella pie! Just remember to order mozzarella because a “plain” pie doesn’t come with cheese at Sally’s.
The scoop behind this place is fun because it was started by two brothers in 1938 who happen to be nephews of Frank Pepe down the block. Salvatore’s name made it to the facade of the building because he was old enough to hold a liquor license. Most New Haven residents align themselves with either Pepe’s or Sally’s, but there’s really no need to make that difficult choice because they have completely different strengths.
With only one stop left, the crew started losing steam. Daylight was gone and we had a major stop ahead of us that would undoubtedly have a wait. All of a sudden Mark pulled out a bottle of Fernet-Branca, a useful digestif that gave us a second wind and a renewed hunger for pizza! The stuff tastes like herb-infused paint thinner but I got used to it after a few sips. In all seriousness, thanks Mark!
This new hunger gave us enough power to order not two but THREE large pizzas at our last stop, Bar, the youngest of the day’s pizzerias at just 19 years of age. Here we go: one half mozzarella, half chicken+hot cherry peppers+bacon; one half white clam, half shrimp+bacon; and one whole mashed potato+bacon pie. It didn’t seem like a lot of bacon when we were ordering. Oh well. Hopes were high, as Mark’s students at Pizza a Casa and my customers on pizza tours had heralded the mashed potato pizza at Bar as the savior of all things pizza. It was tasty, but my favorite surprised the heck out of me. It was the chicken+hot cherry peppers+bacon pie! Well, I actually swapped out the chicken for some shrimp from the other pie but bacon and hot cherry peppers made my day. It was really something special.Unfortunately it was pretty dark so my photos aren’t worth posting, but here’s a shot of the mashed potato+bacon pie.
Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday, right? If you haven’t been to New Haven and you’re a pizza nerd, you have some homework ahead of you. But these four aren’t the only games in town. I’m planning a revisit to hit some of the lesser known spots so let me know what I’m missing and I’ll add it to the list. I really love the rich culture of pizza in Connecticut and it’s great to see so much variety and experimentation happening within the context of this historic pizza locale. Have a slice day!