A plain tomato pie at Pepe’sPhoto Credit : Mike Urban
What is New Haven pizza? For starters, it’s “Apizza” (pronounced ah-BEETS). New Haven’s unique name and approach to pizza date back to the city’s Italian-American neighborhoods and bakeries in the early 1900s. Factory workers and working-class families needed simple fare that could be shared easily and that could feed an entire family on a tight budget. Apizza, served up by the numerous neighborhood bakeries, fits the bill.
Enter Frank Pepe, the godfather of New Haven apizza, who started churning out his distinctive Neapolitan-style “tomato pies” from the Wooster Square bakery where he worked after World War I. He initially sold them from a pushcart he wheeled around the neighborhood. The tomato pies proved so popular that Pepe eventually took ownership of the bakery and launched Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana on Wooster Street in 1925. His first eatery was in a small building named The Spot, which still exists as an annex adjacent to today’s Pepe’s.
Classic New Haven pizza is simple and straightforward. Referred to in the vernacular as a “plain pie,” it consists of dough, San Marzano tomato sauce, a sprinkling of romano cheese, and a few dashes of olive oil. (Mozzarella cheese, or “mootz,” is considered to be a topping, like sausage or mushroom.) The pies are baked in large coal-fired ovens made of sturdy bricks that can withstand the intense heat given off by the burning fuel. The plain pie is the standard by which all New Haven apizza is measured.
Frank Pepe’s nephew, Salvatore “Sally” Consiglio, worked for his uncle for several years before opening his own pizzeria, Sally’s Apizza, just down Wooster Street from Pepe’s. He did so with his uncle’s blessing, and the two institutions have been friendly competitors ever since. A third titan of New Haven pizza, Modern Apizza, came into its own on nearby State Street in 1942.
Each of these three establishments has its own unique specialties within the world of New Haven apizza. Pepe’s is best known for its plain tomato pie and for its white clam pie, which Frank Pepe invented in the 1960s. Sally’s is acclaimed for its white clam pie and its unique white potato pie, festooned with paper-thin slices of white potato and smothered in garlic. And Modern zigs while the other two zag, with its Italian Bomb pizza, piled high with bacon, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onion, pepper, and garlic. (Modern’s owner, Bill Pustari, jokingly nicknamed it the “Diet Special,” claiming the three veggies cancel out the three meats.)
Other characteristics of New Haven apizza include “charred” (not burnt) crust, which leaves a charcoal-like residue on your fingertips, often calling for a post-meal hand washing. The pies are somewhat oblong in shape and are typically served on rectangular metal baking sheets. They’re also cut in haphazard, sometimes lengthy trapezoidal shapes, another hallmark of this idiosyncratic delicacy.
Other great purveyors of classic New Haven apizza include Roseland Apizza in nearby Derby, where their white clam pie reigns supreme. And just over the New Haven border in West Haven is Zuppardi’s, whose pride and joy is their sausage and mushroom pie. BAR, a relative newcomer on Crown Street in downtown New Haven, has built a huge following around their unconventional mashed potato, bacon, and garlic apizza, which pairs very nicely with the many beers they brew on the premises.
Numerous celebrities have chimed in on which of the big three New Haven pizzerias is the best. In Pepe’s corner are Henry Winkler, Lyle Lovett, and Paul Giamatti. Sally’s is tops for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Michael Bolton. Steven Spielberg tops the list of Modern devotees, along with U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, internet food personality Daym Drops, and Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione, a Connecticut native.
Pepe’s, Sally’s, and Modern are almost always crowded, and standing outside while waiting for a table is a part of the experience. But it’s well worth the time invested in order to enjoy the pizza and the historic vibes that make New Haven the pizza capital of America.
Which New Haven pizza place is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!