Not long ago, in line at Libby’s Italian Pastry Shop, a hundred-year-old bakery in New Haven, I encountered a burly middle-aged man pacing in front of the counter in a state of distress. The cannoli, he was horrified to see, were not being filled with ricotta to order but, rather, had been pre-assembled and were now growing soggy (he was sure) in a large glass display case. He slapped a palm to his forehead. I asked him if he had come to Wooster Square, New Haven’s historically Italian neighborhood, for the pizza. He certainly had not. “I don’t buy Connecticut pizza,” he said scornfully. “I’m from the Bronx. It don’t taste right.”
I beg to differ. But, of course, I would: I was born and raised in New Haven, where pizza is also known as “apizza,” pronounced “ah-beetz,” a bit of enduring Neapolitan dialect. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an influx of Italian immigrants, mostly from Naples, arrived to work at factories like Sargent & Co., a manufacturer of locks and hardware; in the nineteen-tens, New Haven had the highest per-capita Italian American population of any city in the U.S. Small, family-owned bakeries, many of them serving simple, inexpensive pizza made in brick ovens, proliferated in Wooster Square and beyond.
Of the dozens of apizza restaurants in and around New Haven, three have earned the most renown: Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, which opened in Wooster Square in 1925; Sally’s Apizza (1938, down the street); and Modern Apizza (1934, in an adjacent neighborhood). Though they have much in common—Salvatore (Sally) Consiglio was a nephew of Frank Pepe—there’s a compulsion among locals to favor one over the others. My family is a Modern family. For as long as I can remember, we’ve ordered pizzas layered thickly with San Marzano tomato sauce and shredded mozzarella, plus fried eggplant or olives and onions. The cheese is aged, never fresh, and I’ve always been partial to the sauceless white pies that let it sing, topped with coarsely chopped garlic and broccoli or wheels of tomato. Every pie is finished with finely crumbled pecorino and sliced haphazardly, so that the wedges vary considerably in width. Most important, a New Haven pizza is always cooked well done: the crust, which is made from a cold-fermented dough and hand-stretched, is thin, chewy, and pleasingly gritty, exceptionally blistered and charred. In “Pizza: A Love Story,” a 2019 documentary, one enthusiast explains that “you need to actually thoroughly wash your hands after eating a New Haven pizza, because it looks like you’ve been gardening.”
I knew that apizza inspired passion and pilgrimages and celebrity endorsements—Frank Sinatra, a friend of Consiglio’s brother, was a vocal champion of Sally’s—but its profile has risen in the years since I left New Haven. In 2006, Pepe’s, which is still owned by the family that founded it, began to expand throughout Connecticut and as far as Florida. In 2017, Sally’s was sold to an investment consortium, which followed suit. Dave Portnoy, the knuckleheaded founder of Barstool Sports, who posts inane pizza reviews on YouTube, has also spread the gospel. “Let me settle this once and for all,” he tweeted in 2021. “The pizza capital of the United States is New Haven Ct. Anybody who says otherwise is wrong.” When he visited Modern, he deemed it “legitimately spectacular.” It’s hard to imagine myself agreeing with Portnoy on anything but this.
Colin Caplan, a native and historian of the city, who wrote the 2018 book “Pizza in New Haven,” has identified some eighty restaurants outside Connecticut that serve New Haven-style pizza. (Most are in the U.S., but he’s currently trying to nail down a place in South Korea.) It was with some territorial suspicion that I visited, in September, one of the newest: Lala’s, on the roof of Grimm Ales, a craft brewery in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, described by its owners (one of whom, a Georgia native, graduated from Yale) as a “fermentation-focused New Haven-inspired sourdough pizzeria.” The first item on the menu was promising: a “red pie,” made without mozzarella—only tomato sauce, plus olive oil and pecorino. This would be known as a tomato pie in New Haven, where it’s a protected specialty. Order one from the Pepe’s Web site and you’re prompted to click a box: “By selecting this, you are acknowledging that this pie has no mozzarella on it.” Lala’s list of toppings included clams (a white clam pie is a New Haven classic made especially famous by Pepe’s) and mashed potato (an homage to Bar, a pizzeria just off Yale’s campus). But they were outnumbered by ingredients that read like a parody of early-two-thousands Brooklyn: egg-yolk drizzle, fermented red onions, Gruyère, local mushrooms.
And though the pizzas were served on sheet pans covered in parchment paper, as they would be in New Haven, they otherwise didn’t look familiar. Apizza crust is decidedly thin, but it also has a pronounced and appealing droop to it, enhanced by the weight of a generous and rather sloppily arranged quantity of toppings. At Lala’s, the crust was flavorful but almost cracker-like, and the pies were topped more sparsely for a refined, daintier effect. I flipped a slice over and inspected its underside: nary a hint of char.
If there’s one person who knows what it would take to replicate New Haven pizza in another place, it’s Caplan. I called him to ask what accounts for what I think of as apizza’s X factor: a deeply rendered caramelization, a complex intensity drawn from sauce, crust, and cheese alike. Was it the oven temperature and cooking time? He explained that apizza is made with a hydrated dough that can stand up to eight minutes in an oven kept at around six hundred degrees, as opposed to a drier Neapolitan dough, which is flash-cooked at up to nine hundred degrees, so that the creamy fresh mozzarella barely melts. According to Caplan’s research, what we call Neapolitan pizza today is a relatively modern creation, resulting from improvements in flour quality. New Haven pizza, he argues, is actually closer to what was originally made in Naples. “It’s like we saved a piece of Old Napoli from the ancient days of the lazzaroni, the peasants,” he said, his voice growing romantic.
When I remarked that the same could be said of New York pizzerias, some of which are even older than New Haven’s big three and use similar recipes, he countered that New York’s offerings are more diverse than New Haven’s, and have perhaps been diluted by a wave of shops that don’t take the craft seriously—the dollar-slice phenomenon. Still, he allowed, “I realize that I could find a pizza out there that I might fall in love with, and it might not be in New Haven. It’s a really scary thought.”
On a recent visit to the Wooster Square Pepe’s, I saw at least fifty people standing in line for a table, undeterred by light rain. A friend and I ordered a white clam pie to go and carried it to a bench nearby, where we found a group of road trippers from Maine who had had the same idea. When I opened the box, I was disappointed to see that the clams had slid to one side of the pie in transit. But then I realized that the looseness with which they’d been applied partly accounted for the pizza’s transcendence. At Pepe’s, the sweet, meaty chopped littlenecks slosh like seawater, and taste like it, too, their bright brine married with fresh garlic, dried oregano, olive oil, and pecorino.
A connoisseur knows that asking which of New Haven’s pizzerias is the best is beside the point; the more pertinent question is which restaurant offers the best iteration of each pie. If a contrarian tries to tell you that, actually, the white clam pie at Zuppardi’s, in neighboring West Haven, is better than the one at Pepe’s, resist. (But, by all means, go out of your way to try Zuppardi’s “Special,” with mushrooms and a superlative house-made fennel sausage.) At Sally’s, order a red pie with mozzarella, bacon, and onions, or a white pie topped with fresh rosemary and silky, almost translucent slices of potato.
For anything else, you’ll find me at Modern. Not long ago, my husband and I and our two small children met my parents there for lunch. It was the first visit for my kids, and cramming together into a familiar, dimly lit booth felt like passing down a primal ritual. New Haven is not a slice town; you get a whole pie and savor it sitting down. My father pointed out a server who he guessed had been working there almost as long as he’d been a regular, at least thirty years. I burned the roof of my mouth on my first bite, then tried to soothe it with gulps from an icy pitcher of Foxon Park white birch beer, a sweet, slightly earthy local soda you’ll find at any New Haven pizzeria. After a few slices, my hands were covered in soot.
Ruth Reichl once wrote, “The best pizza in the world, as everybody knows, no longer exists. It is the pizza of your childhood.” The pizza of my childhood still exists. Can it be untethered from the place where I grew up? In Chicago, home of the deep dish, there’s a restaurant called Piece Pizzeria & Brewery that offers New Haven-style pies. (Rick Nielsen, of the band Cheap Trick, is a co-owner. It is my unscientific observation that a disproportionate number of New Haven pizza fans are touring musicians who come to town to perform at Toad’s Place, a tiny, legendary concert venue.) A few weeks ago, I ordered, to my home in Brooklyn, a two-pack of Piece pies—a classic cheese, with red sauce, and a white tomato basil—on Goldbelly, a Web site that ships restaurant food nationwide.
The second they arrived, I preheated my oven to five hundred degrees and slipped in the white tomato basil. Vacuum-sealed in plastic, the pies had looked fairly pathetic—you could argue that mail-ordering a frozen New Haven-style pizza from Chicago to New York is like translating the Odyssey back into Greek from the English Spark Notes—but after a minute or so I perked up. The scent of garlic taking over the kitchen was downright Proustian. After five minutes, the pie was mottled with char. The crust was a bit skimpy, but otherwise it looked pretty close to correct—and when I took a bite I was shocked to find that it tasted right, too. ♦