Thursday September 1, 2011
New Haven, Connecticut: once home to cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney, hideaway for British opponents of the crown in the 17th century (Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe fled to New Haven when pursued by Charles II on counts of regicide), and location of a small Puritan-founded university simply known as "Yale" to the locals. What cultural contribution is New Haven most proud of, though? Why that would be their unique brand of pizza. Pardon me, that would be apizza, the favored local nomenclature, which sounds kind of like "ah-beetz" when pronounced correctly. And who can blame them for being different, loud and proud of their pizza. With all the regional clamoring about varying styles of New York-style pizza, New Haven has to elbow their way into the conversation for recognition. Though my stay in New Haven was all too brief, I had the distinct pleasure of sampling some of the nation's most unique pies.
The logical place to start my pizza pilgrimage was, of course, Little Italy. With pizza parlors and Italian bakeries lining both sides of Wooster Street, it's difficult to resist the first cannoli or calzone that enters your field of vision. My destination, however, was well-marked by the line spilling out the door. That would be the Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, the godfather of all New Haven pizza joints. Established in 1925, Frank Pepe's still advertises its signature "Tomato Pies Made-to-Order" - hey, when no one has any earthly idea what a pizza is (it being 1925 and all), you have to go with the most literal description of your product. The man behind the pies, Frank Pepe, emigrated from the Amalfi Coast at the age of 16 and started the business with his wife, Filomena, in 1925. At first, they offered only two pizzas. The famed signature white clam pizza - often said to have been invented by Frank Pepe himself - didn't come along until sometime in the 1960s.
After a brief wait on the sidewalk, made more pleasant by a tasty raspberry Italian ice from the Italian bakery next door, my dining companions and I stepped through the door and into a museum of apizza. Framed menus and advertisements from the early days of Pepe's line the walls of the busy, no frills-dining room, and we were seated at one of many large green booths, which, on a good day, could be described as posture correcting. No matter though, with Genessee beer by the glass for $1.50 and a wide variety of Foxon Park soda (a local product served at Pepe's from the very beginning), we were quickly in our comfort zone. We placed our orders and watched as numerous pizzas were delivered on baking sheets with parchment paper and placed directly on the tables around us. Our pies arrived, and after rearranging the table to fit three baking sheets without spilling any drinks, it was finally time to answer the question: What makes a New Haven pizza different from any other pie? Most of the magic is in the crust. It's a coal-fired Neapolitan-style thin-crust pie. It's as thin and crispy as any crust you'll ever have the pleasure of biting into. I couldn't help but race to last few bites of each slice, as the crust cracked and exploded with charred goodness. The char on the bottom of the crust clearly sets it apart and leaves behind plenty of evidence on your hands - you may look like you've been a-workin' in a coal mine afterwards. Our table enjoyed the tomato pie with mozzarella (you can order it without the cheese) and thick, flavorful sausage the most, as well as a specialty summer pie with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. For purposes of scientific research, of course, I had to give the iconic White Clam Pizza a try. For those unfamiliar, it's a quite a unique combination of toppings with olive oil, grated cheese, oregano and littleneck clams. While I wholeheartedly respect this contribution to the pantheon of pizza (and let's just say I certainly had no trouble getting a few slices down) it's probably not for everyone. But the old school ambience here and the coal-fired charred crusts did not disappoint.
With the most well-known pizzeria in town out of the way, my stomach and I forged onward towards other staples of the New Haven eats scene. Regrettably, I didn't have the time to make it to Sally's Apizza, another historical heavy hitter on Wooster Street that was founded in 1938 by Frank Pepe's nephew, Salvatore Consiglio. Most locals-in-the-know swear by the brilliant pies turned out at Modern Apizza. It happened to be closed on the particular weekend of my visit, so I headed downtown to a place simply known as Bar. Much like the other popular pizza parlors, waiting played an integral roll. But hey, Bar makes its own beer and is just as much a club/bar as a restaurant, so there's plenty going on as you bide your time. After a sizable wait, my famished dining companions and I were seated and demanded a family-style Bar Salad (way better than it sounds) with seasonal greens, blue cheese, sliced pears and killer caramelized pecans. As for the pizza, its crust was just as good as Pepe's, and the pies tended to hold together slightly better. The red pie (no mozzarella) was particularly impressive, as was our red pie with mozzarella, pepperoni and hot peppers. The freshness and flavor of all the toppings stood out. Though Bar certainly has some identity issues - brewpub, dance club or pizza restaurant?? - they produce a pretty mean pie.
Bonus eats: After stuffing my gullet with some 15 or so slices of pizza in as many hours, I had the chance to nosh upon a few other choice foodstuffs during my stay. Manjares, a cozy little pastry shop/tapas bar in the Westville neighborhood serves up excellent ceviche and a tres leche cake to-die-for. Really, you can't go wrong with any of the house-made desserts. Soul de Cuba Café is a quiet respite for a café con leche, gooey fried plantains and one heck of a Cuban sandwich with fantastic roast pork. Beer nerds and carousers of all sorts will find Delaney's to be a great little watering hole with an impressive selection of Belgian beers on draft and three different types of moules frites.