field report: New Haven Apizza

I recently spent a long weekend in New Haven, CT, the home of the world’s finest pizza (I shall brook no opposition to this statement). I achieved the New Haven Apizza* Grand Slam, which is something I just completely made up: 4 nights, 4 pizzerias.

*Part of the New Haven patois, pizza is ‘apizza’ (pronounced abeetz), mozzarella is pronounced mootz, but no one will mind if you use the standard terms.

The best New Haven apizza is characterized by a thin crust that manages to be both crisp and chewy, with a blackened char – IT IS NOT BURNT, OKAY? – that will leave your hands looking like a coal miner’s; really high quality tomato sauce and cheese; a shape that may not be perfectly round; and non-traditional options such as fresh clam, plain tomato with a dusting of parmesan, and even white potato. If you eat in, you are probably going to have to wait for a table, the decor and ambience may not be top class, and your pizza will likely be served on top of a sheet of baking paper on a big rectangular baking sheet. Chances are the place will have been in business since the 1930s, if not earlier.

I thought I would get some mattymacchiato mileage out of this quest by finishing my meal at each outlet with an espresso, then writing a coffee field report. Only one problem: exactly none of the four serve espresso. Oh well. Might as well share a pizza review instead!

West Haven
Estd. 1934, originally a bakery that also made pizza, switched focus to pizza after World War II
Fresh clam pizza

I went to college in New Haven in the mid 1980s, but I never heard of Zuppardi’s until a couple years ago when I saw their fresh clam listed as one of America’s finest pizzas. Intrigued, I made my way to West Haven the next time I was in the area.

I’ve been back almost every time I’ve passed through the area since, and always for the fresh clam. My word, this is a masterpiece. The clams are shucked fresh when you order and served whole, giving you an array of big meaty shellfish goodness. The base of the pie is a perfect crust, with a well-balanced mix of garlic, oil, herbs and spices, including a red pepper flake or two which adds a wee little kick. The real genius is that your order comes with lemon wedges, which you should use – I’ve always felt that if you ever eat any kind of seafood and are given a lemon, you should use it, and that’s definitely true here.

Fair warning, because you are enjoying fresh clams shucked just for you, you will pay through the nose for the pleasure. The pie is set as ‘market price’, and you can expect a small to cost between $20-25.

Not a typo. Whether the idea of a fresh clam pizza puts you off, or paying that kind of cash for a small pizza offends your sense of decency, I get it, but please find a way past it. Swallow your pride and take a chance, you’ll be rewarded for your bravery.

Another great thing about Zuppardi’s is they ship their pies frozen to anywhere in the US. They send small pizzas of several different flavors (the white clam is not the big meaty variety). Follow the heating directions to a T and eat it straight away, and you end up with a pretty good pie, if not the same as taking a trip to south central Connecticut. Order through their website.

Zuppardi’s Apizza
179 Union Avenue
West Haven, CT

Wooster Street, New Haven
Estd. 1938
Plain tomato pie

The late Salvatore Consiglio’s pizzeria on Wooster Street, the street which is ground zero for the local Italian community and the apizza universe, is one of the two heavyweights of apizza. Sally’s is destined to forever be compared with its predecessor down the street, Frank Pepe’s. If you meet someone who has spent a lot of time in New Haven, the question is not “what’s your favorite pizzeria?” but rather “Pepe’s or Sally’s?”

The answer, for me, has always been Sally’s. The place is dark and a bit run down, there’s a good chance your waiter will leave you with the olfactory impression that he could really use a shower, the service is often gruff and rushed, the line is long, and none of that matters a whit because the pies are so damned good. My college friends and I will almost always end up here, have a couple of different pizzas, tell the same stories we’ve been telling each other for 30 years, and then leave with full bellies, blackened hands, and happy hearts.

While my friends and I usually get a traditional red sauce-cheese-topping type of order, if I’m on my own I like to try one of the more unique offerings. Sally’s is the home of the aforementioned white potato pizza, which is a rich, creamy, rosemary inflected delightful surprise. The best way I can describe it is a taste like a gourmet take on the finest scalloped potato dish you could ever hope for.

This time out I went for the plain tomato pie. The standard crust, with their pizza sauce, olive oil, and a very slight dusting of grated parmesan. I’ve had it before, and it never disappoints. You really appreciate the quality of the tomatoes, and the flavor is bright and refreshing. I understand that Philadelphia area pizza places also make plain tomato pies, but they would have to be really special to match this one.

The Consiglio family recently sold a controlling stake in the business to investors, who plan to expand to additional locations (much like a certain place down the street). Let’s hope and pray that any expansion gets the details right, and that the quality of the original isn’t compromised.

Sally’s Apizza
237 Wooster Street, New Haven

Modern Apizza
State Street, New Haven
Estd. 1934

Not as well known outside the area, Modern is the third titan of the apizza scene. This is the favorite of a few friends who grew up in the area and know their way around an apizza, which is saying something. Also, Modern is usually opened an hour or two later than the other places, for your late night dining pleasure.

Another exemplar of the charred crust, the quality is always outstanding. Your pie is prepared in an oil-fueled brick oven by guys who have been doing this for a long time. Pretty much anything you order will be great.

On this visit I went for a sausage, and it really blew me away. Each element was absolutely perfect. Probably the best crust of the trip, striking the balance just right between chewy and crispy. A bright and fresh tomato sauce, perfect amount of flavorful cheese, and oh my was the sausage great. Outstanding Italian sausage crumbles, even included fennel seeds. Just damned impressive all around. Despite incredible competition, this was the best pizza I ate during my visit.

Modern Apizza
874 State Street, New Haven

Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana
Wooster Street, New Haven
Estd. 1925
Fresh White Clam and Plain Tomato

I saved the original, most well-known and most popular New Haven apizza place for last. I highly recommend reading the history of Pepe’s, where among other things you’ll learn that Salvatore Consiglio was Frank’s nephew, and learned the apizza arts here before opening his own shop down the street.

While the original keeps chugging along, the family has expanded its wings and now has a total of 10 outlets in the northeast. I’m just not sure that the magic can be fully replicated on that scale, particularly the oven and the local water. I’ve tried one of the other shops, in Fairfield, and it was pretty good but not the same.

I saved Pepe’s for last because I wanted to see how the fresh clam and the plain tomato compared to Zuppardi’s and Sally’s, respectively.

The fresh clam was very good, don’t get me wrong, but a bit disappointing and not close to Zuppardi’s version. The clams were chopped up pieces, not the big, bold whole clams from Zup’s. The crust was great, but the base sauce lacked the balance from the West Haven competitor, at times the garlic was overwhelming. And no lemon wedges, which would have really helped here (though in fairness I could have asked for them). No contest, Zuppardi’s in a rout. It is worth noting that Pepe’s prepares the clams for the day in batches, so while still pretty fresh you won’t pay a steep market-based price as you will at Zuppardi’s.

The fresh tomato pie was fantastic. Like Sally’s and Modern, you really got the fresh, wholesome, bright tomato flavor from the sauce. Great crust, as was the case with every single pie I had on this trip. I give it a narrow edge over Sally’s because there was a heavier shake with the grated parmesan, not so much to make me think I was eating a cheese pizza but enough to give a more noticeable complement to the tomatoes.

Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster Street, New Haven (also next door at The Spot, site of the original Frank Pepe’s bakery)

One final observation, it was nice to see that the shakers on the tables at each of the four restaurants had real grated parm, not the fake powder stuff. It’s the little things.

Let’s close with a ranking of the pies I ate on this visit. One very good, and four absolutely outstanding. I was surprised by the winner, but that pie was just too good not to take the prize.

5. Pepe’s fresh clam
4. Sally’s plain tomato
3. Pepe’s plain tomato
2. Zuppardi’s fresh clam
1. Modern sausage

Let me add that there are plenty of other fine options for pizza lovers in the area, some of which follow the traditional apizza model and some of which do not. I haven’t yet tried Bar, which gets great marks for high quality apizza, but wasn’t included here because it’s not 80-odd years old. Yorkside Pizza on York Street is a family friendly place on the Yale campus with great pizza, garlic bread with mozzarella, and Greek specialties. I haven’t been to Wall Street Pizza on Yale’s campus, but it is located on the site of what was once Naples Pizza, which used to be the place of choice for underage undergrads to enjoy pizza by the slice (say “slices are ready” in the presence of a Yalie from any class of the ’80s and they will weep with joy) and pitchers of cheap beer.

Finally, while I couldn’t get a coffee fix at any of the pizzerias, I did try a post-meal espresso at Libby’s, an old-line Italian pastry shop located next door to Pepe’s. Let’s just say……… be sure to enjoy Libby’s wonderful Italian ices (I’ll have a lemon in a squeeze cup, thanks) and delicious baked goods. If you’re looking for a good coffee in the area, try Blue State Coffee on York Street on the Yale campus.

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