There are regional pizza styles across the US, but none is perhaps more storied than New Haven-style pizza. Here now, Connecticut food writer Amy Kundrat breaks down the style and explores the city's historic pizzerias.
There is pizza, and then there is apizza. New Haven-style pizza is the latter; a hotter, crispier, and dirtier descendant of Neapolitan style pie. What ribs are to Kansas City, cheesesteak to Philadelphia, and crabcakes to Baltimore, pizza is to New Haven. If you grew up in or around the Elm City, your pizza parlor allegiance can be fierce. So how did Connecticut's second largest city become ground zero for some of the best pizza in the United States? Just what is New Haven-style pizza?
First, a bit of history. At the turn of the twentieth century, New Haven became a popular town for Italian families who settled in the United States during the country's diaspora. Neighborhoods such as Wooster Square became home to many displaced southern Italian families primed with palates that appreciated the thin-crusted Neapolitan style pizza of their homeland.
What makes New Haven-style pizza inimitable goes much deeper than the charred, thin-crusted oblong pies of Wooster Street. New Haven has its own pizza patois and signature moves. Here's a lexicon to help you decipher them:
A New Haven Pizza Lexicon
It's apizza, not pizza
The word "apizza" is itself a distinguishing characteristic of New Haven. The "a" is a harbinger of the Italian dialect spoken in the Naples region. Sally's and Modern still use it proudly and a handful of places in the region use it as a deferential nod to their stylistic New Haven roots.
In the twenties and thirties coal was abundant and cheap. It is also still responsible for the blistered, sooty, and smoke-imbued flavor of the pies at Pepe's and Sally's. Modern also initially relied on coal, in the form of coke fuel, but has long-since turned to an oil-fueled open flame brick oven.
It's not burned, it's charred
What all apizza has in common, regardless of the fuel source, is intensely hot brick ovens, and pies left intentionally longer on their decks, producing a signature deeply charred crust. Some may call it burned, but that's wrong: In New Haven, it's charred.
A long, cold fermentation
New Haven-style pizza dough relies on a longer fermentation than that of its quick rise New York style pizza neighbor. Allowing the dough to proof more slowly over the course of an overnight refrigeration, in combination with letting the dough come to room temperature before shaping and baking, allows for a much more nuanced flavor and chewy crust.
Most of the old timers in New Haven call their whole milk aged mozzarella by a single syllable: "mootz." You can get away with this on or around Wooster Street if you 1) grew up using the word 2) are Italian American and want to give it a go, or 3) work in a pizzeria and/or have some flour on your shirt.
"Mootz" is a topping
Mozzarella is considered a topping so always be sure to specify "mootz" or "no mootz." If you don't ask for it, it won't come on your pizza.
The first pies made in New Haven were topped with tomato sauce. That's it. No rivers of cheese, nary a topping in sight, just fresh and tangy hand crushed tomatoes cooked simply by the heat of the oven. Die-hards still prefer light or no cheese to appreciate the simplicity of New Haven's tangy tomato sauce and charred crust, and today almost all New Haven pizza parlors have their own take.
White clam pizza
Any New Haven pizza parlor worthy of its zip code makes a decent white clam pie. They should, after all: Pepe's invented it, and New Haven is a stone's throw to Long Island Sound. A combination of clams, with grated aged cheese, and garlic atop a thin crust is at the top of its game when paired with their smoky bacon.
Foxon Park soda
Although technically not really part of the pizza, these pops are very much part of the New Haven experience. Foxon Park sodas are ubiquitous at the big three, a product that's has been manufactured in East Haven since the 1922. Made using real sugar, they're known for their White Birch flavor.
Three families bequeathed New Haven with a hat trick of Italian American pizza parlors and a legacy that inspires imitation. Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, known simply as Pepe's, was the first to open on Wooster Street in 1925, Modern Apizza opened on State Street in 1934, followed by Sally's Apizza on Wooster Street in 1938. As pizzerias come and go, none have risen to the level of these big three, although a few notable spots come close, such as the new kid Bar. Here now, your definitive guide to New Haven pizza:
Oven: Coal-powered brick oven
Signature Pizza: Tomato pie, Garden pie
Location: 237 Wooster Street, New Haven CT 06511, sallysapizza.net
Notes: Cash only
Frank Sinatra was a Sally's guy. And really, that's all you need to know.
Very little has changed at Sally's since Salvatore Consiglio first started serving pies out of its coal-fired oven in 1938 on Wooster Street. The Consiglio family is still the keeper of the Sally's flame, and Salvatore Consiglio's two sons, Richard and Bobby, continue to make the pies and wield the peels daily.
This rare fidelity translates to a consistency that sets Sally's apart from any of its New Haven peers. The pizza you ate on your first visit will likely be identical to the pizza you eat on your next visit, which is likely similar to the pizza that Ol' Blue Eyes ate back in the day.
Lined with wood paneling, Sally's dining room reflects decades of accumulated memorabilia, leading to the controlled chaos that is the rear open kitchen. The white and red brick oven façade is smudged with soot, containers and receipts are piled precariously on surfaces, and service is, well, almost nonexistent. According to Bobby Consiglio, Sally's burns through about a ton of coal each week.
One thing that is for certain, the Sally's tomato pie reigns supreme on Wooster Street. It's the benchmark for which any tomato pie is measured, thanks in part to a house-made tomato sauce with a proprietary blend of tomatoes. An evenly crispy and charred edge, a tangy layer of tomato sauce that approaches the pizza's flat edge, and a smattering of fresh herbs with nary a fleck of cheese in sight, prove simple is better and decades of ritual matter. In the summer, Sally's offers a fresh tomato version with fresh basil and a light smattering of cheeses. Anther pie that is nearly as good and unique to Sally's is the Garden Special, a combination of tomato, mozzarella, zucchini, and basil.
Sally's well-worn patina and a gruff eccentricity polarize customers, offending some while charming others. Unlike Pepe's, which has dusted itself off and expanded, Sally's has remained defiantly focused and unchanged by the Consiglio family for the past 76 years. This may be the root of the rivalry between these two similar, yet vastly different New Haven apizza parlors.
Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana
Oven: Coal-fired brick oven
Signature Pizza: White clam pizza
Location: 157 Wooster Street, New Haven, CT, pepespizzeria.com
Synonymous with New Haven pizza, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana is the granddaddy of New Haven's pizza scene. From its humble beginnings on Wooster Street in 1925, Pepe's has recently expanded to five additional locations in Connecticut and New York. Although much time and expense has gone into duplicating the taste and feel of the Pepe's experience, none come close to the experience of the original Pepe's location in New Haven.
The original Pepe's is now called The Spot, located to the left and rear of where Pepe's stands today on Wooster Street. It is home to a smaller, nearly identical operation with shorter lines, but Pepe's proper is still the main draw. Two dining rooms are continually filled to the brim, often with long lines trailing down the block. Inside, a massive and deep brick oven with a white-tiled facade stands at attention in the rear, attended by white-aproned men wielding impossibly long peels and pounding out their over-sized oblong pies.
Pepe's very first pizzas were tomato pies, and a nod to these modest roots can be found in the constantly-lit "Original Tomato Pie" neon sign hanging above the kitchen's counter. Its most beloved pizza is the famous original white clam pie. Hundreds of imitators have attempted to match the intoxicating combination of romano cheese, fresh garlic, olive oil, parsley, and clams atop the chewy and charred oblong pies.
Clam pizza pro tip? Add bacon. Pepe's is known for its intensely smoked bacon, which remains pliable and similar in texture to the clams, making it an excellent partner in crime.
Oven: Open flame brick oven (originally coke-fueled).
Signature Pizza: The Italian Bomb
Location: 4 State Street, New Haven, CT, modernapizza.com
Located on State Street in the East Rock neighborhood, Modern Apizza sits just off the well-beaten path of Wooster Street, earning its status within New Haven's pizza scene with an 80-year history and an adherence to apizza tradition. Modern's owner Bill Pustari — who purchased Modern from its original owner over thirty years ago — has worked hard to build its reputation because of its location. As a result, it's known as the most welcoming and family-friendly of the big three. Its signature pie is known as the Italian Bomb.
Modern's open flame brick oven cranks out charred, chewy, and substantial pizzas. The more toppings the merrier. The crust is one of the more interesting for New Haven apizza, thanks to the unique texture of its undercarriage. While some parlors use cornmeal to help pizza slide off the peel, Modern uses a special breadcrumb recipe. Watch the oven action closely and you'll see the each pizza touch down on a rough mat before it makes its way into a pizza box, clearing off the remnants.
The thin and chewy Modern crust is the result of dough made from a starter, with just flour, water, yeast, olive oil, and salt, which is then treated to a 24-hour cold fermentation. Modern does not shy away from its use of cheese, which is a whole milk aged mozzarella, and every Modern pie is finished with a hit of Pecorino Romano. The sauce is made of whole hand-crushed Italian peeled tomatoes, often purchased by the lot to ensure consistency and cooks only during its time within the oven.
Setting it apart from its more sparsely topped neighbors and classic pies, Modern's best-known pie has become known as the Italian Bomb, a monster with seven toppings: Sausage, bacon, pepperoni, onion, mushrooms and garlic, made possible by a sturdy crust and sparse "mootz."
The underdog of New Haven's pizza scene, Modern owns the title of "friendliest" joint and heftiest pizza, as well as one of the few places you can usually avoid a long wait.
Signature Pie: Mashed potato (with bacon)
Location: 254 Crown Street, New Haven CT 06510, barnightclub.com
Note: House brewed beer, salads
What Pepe's is to tourists, Sally's is to the pizza purist, and Modern is to the locals, Bar is to the hipster 20-something collegiate community (Yale is just one of its several university neighbors, after all). Bar owns its younger, brasher, new kid on the New Haven block status, with a small and decent selection of house brewed beers, a vast industrial-feeling space, and a peerless mashed potato (and bacon) pie.
You can't beat Bar's location and its huge space. The facade's tall glass windows allow light from Crown Street to pour into the Bru room, offering a glance of their famous neighbor, Louis Lunch (home of the first hamburger). At night, the space doubles as a busy brew pub and night club.
But the real draw at Bar is the pizza, which veers from the elder statesmen in several notable ways. The pies are even thinner, almost impossibly so. Their shapes mirror the rectangular aluminum sheet pans they are served upon. Cut crosswise, they eschew the wedge in favor of a rectangular slice. They offer non-pizza items (a single, and solid, salad). The brick oven burns natural gas, not coal or oil like their New Haven neighbors.
By far the best-known and most coveted pizza at Bar is the mashed potato pie (preferably with bacon and garlic). That's right: Mashed potato. To understand Bar's mashed potato and bacon pie, you must first suspend any notion of the mashed potatoes of your youth, unless they were garlicky, light as air, and laced with a bit of aged cheese and herbs and studded with crispy bits of bacon. Placed on top of Bar's implausibly thin and light, crispy crust, this pizza redefines what's possible with a pie.
[All photos: Amy Kundrat]