"One more pizza, and it will feel like aversion therapy,” quipped our companion, Paul Kelley, as we trudged to the last pizzeria on our daylong tour of New Haven’s time-honored pizza hotspots. Over the course of six hours, we’d visit four restaurants, consume approximately 12 different slices, give or take, and slosh some craft beer or local Foxon Park soda into our stomachs on top of all that dough. For a pizza lover, that is a pretty good day.
And we were all pizza lovers. Our group of 13 included folks from Connecticut and West Virginia — all game to discover what makes New Haven’s pizza so famously delicious. Colin Caplan, owner of Taste of New Haven, proved to be the perfect guide: The born-and-bred New Haven guy is a true pizza geek. In addition to operating the tour, he’s written a book, “Pizza New Haven," and is one of the producers of “Pizza: A Love Story,” currently making the film festival circuit.
“You can tell I’m a fanatic. I’m obsessed with pizza,” Caplan says, rattling off lists of the first pizzerias in America and the years they were founded. One of the earliest was our very own Pizzeria Regina in the North End, but Caplan doesn’t lavish it with praise. “People like to badmouth Boston pizza,” he says, just like they do the Patriots. He also dishes about Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. “Is it a pizza? Yes,” he says. “Is it something I want to eat? No.” Detroit-style pizza, which is currently having a moment — even in cities like Philly and New York — is a thicker, square-shaped, Sicilian-style pie. It’s not exactly authentic, he says. “In Sicily, there’s no such thing as Sicilian pizza — that’s an American invention. It’s focaccia.” On this tour, we’d hit New Haven’s pizza all-stars: Pepe’s, Bar, Sally’s, and Modern.
Along the way, we’d get lots of local history, plus a look at Yale University and some of the city’s architectural gems (Caplan is trained as an architect) on our 4-mile walking tour. “It’s really a history tour — I just lure you in with pizza and beer!” the guide joked. A lot of that history concerns pizza, and the stories of Italian-Americans who bet that this "Italian ethnic” foodstuff would be welcome on our shores.
Who needs Yale when you’ve got pizza?
We on the East Coast are lucky — we got pizza before the rest of America did, thanks to the Italian immigrants who settled here. “Everybody in New Haven experienced pizza early, by the 1930s,” Caplan says. “It was a small city, so everybody heard about pizza and tried it.” Ads from the 1950s called pizza “the new frankfurter.” New Haveners came from many parts of Italy, with most coming from the Campagnia region — at one time, there were four Little Italy sections of the city — creating “a rich pizza culture here.”
Local pizza pioneer (or is that pie-oneer?) Frank Pepe (www.pepespizzeria.com) got his start selling pizza from a cart to local factory workers and farmers, and opened his pizzeria in 1925. Pepe’s famous white clam pizza didn’t appear on the menu until the 1970s. Italians love seafood, and were eating clams alongside their pizza, Caplan said. Clam pizza was a logical move. “People were clamoring for it,” he quipped.
As the guide shared the story of Pepe’s history, we dug into pizzas at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana: A tomato pie (the OG, the genesis of all pizza), one with “mozz” (mozzarella cheese), and one signature pie: Pepe’s clam pizza, with olive oil, garlic, and Romano cheese. We’d repeat this pattern at all our stops — one plain tomato, one with cheese, and a signature pizza, all pre-ordered by Caplan — so we could judge them fairly.
“People around the world may not know where Yale is, but they know about New Haven pizza. It’s our biggest export,” the guide says. So what makes New Haven pizza so special? The dough is patted down, not tossed, resulting in thin-crusted, oblong-shaped Neapolitan-style pies with charred edges (never call them “burned”!), courtesy of authentic French bread ovens (often coal-burning) that can reach 1000 degrees. “Thin Neapolitan-style pizza is directly related to what was made in Italy over 100 years ago,” Caplan says. While many cities in the United States have a pizza tradition, New Haven’s pizza reigns supreme, according to Caplan, and has been copied everywhere. You can find “New Haven pizza” as far away as Seattle, he notes, even in Belize. “That one is disgusting,” he says. The farther from the mother ship you go, the worse it gets.
All the garlic you can handle, no waiting
And by the way, why do they call it “Apizza” in New Haven? It’s the Neapolitan term for pizza, Caplan says, pronounced “Ah-beets.” After eating our pie in the bustling, noisy Pepe’s (and packing up leftovers), we went to Pepe’s The Spot, next door, to see their massive, coal-fired oven. We watched a baker insert a pie with a super-long pizza peel (an oversized wooden spatula). They can make more than 1,000 pizzas a day, and there are always lines out the door. (Tip: If you want to skip the line at Pepe’s, head to The Spot for your pie.) Overall, we liked Pepe’s pizza, but the unadorned tomato pie is a bit too plain for American tastes. And a white clam pizza isn’t for everyone. By now, we were redolent of garlic, and had eaten three slices of pizza each (plus a beer) in our first half hour of the tour. Nearly every pie we sampled on the tour was loaded with garlic. Oh, to be a garlic farmer in New Haven!
En route to our next stop, Caplan pointed out local landmarks, including an old corset company, a structure that held a dance hall and stables, and the Anchor Spa, a favorite of Yalie Jodie Foster. Clocks, carriages, and Winchester repeating rifles are some of the products once made in New Haven, we learned.
Formerly a paint store, garage, and bar with cage dancers, Bar (www.barnightclub.com) is relatively new to the pizza-and-beer game, coming along in 1991. In these industrial-looking digs, they serve pies made in a gas-fired beehive oven, along with their own British-style ale. Bar’s pizza is thin and crispy, too, but different than Pepe’s. Their signature pie is topped with mashed potatoes, garlic, mozzarella, and crumbled bacon. “Tastes like kind of a crunchy potato skin,” a fellow pizza lover offered. As we noshed, Caplan took us through a brief history of pizza in the United States, including names and dates, noting that the major reason pizza achieved popularity here was the advent of the gas oven. “He knows everything about pizza. He’s like a pizza encyclopedia,” one guest said. “A pizza-pedia!” We would’ve laughed, but our waistband was too tight. (Tip: Wear your fat pants to this one.)
Now that’s apizza
Happily, our next stop was an hour’s walk away. We passed through Yale’s campus (home of “the only art school with a tomb in its basement”) on our way to Modern Apizza (www.modernapizza.com). This one opened in 1934 as part of a pastry shop, became Tony’s Apizza in 1936, and was sold in the 1940s and re-opened as Modern. (See? This is what the tour is like.) Here, the dough is made with a sourdough starter (the mother dough came with the business) and pies are baked in an oil-fired beehive oven. Modern — a favorite of many locals — is “the one of New Haven’s last true family pizzerias,” Caplan said. Modern Apizza even figures into the reverse of the Curse of the Bambino, the guide notes. (It’s a long story, best told by him.) Their original pie is a molten-in-the-middle tomato pizza with grated Romano cheese. But the group really warmed to the Italian Bomb, a meat-and-vegetable-laden extravaganza that is closer to what most of us think of as "pizza” than a near-naked pie. The accompanying beer was a Sea Hag IPA.
Some of us were starting to panic — could we possibly handle more pizza? But we had to soldier on; the final restaurant on the list was Sally’s Apizza (www.sallysappiza.com), a classic haunt and favorite pie of none other than Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. Entering Sally’s, we bypassed the long line of people waiting (and glaring at us), a perk of Caplan’s tour — they always know we’re coming, and have three pizzas at the ready. As a nice gesture, the guide gave one of our pies to the folks in line to share. That was a good thing. We were reaching our threshold of carb overload. Sally’s was founded in 1938 by a nephew of Frank Pepe named Salvatore Consiglio; his sons ran the business for a few years and ultimately sold it to a restaurant company. New locations of Sally’s are opening up, but the original one won’t change — it’s still a ‘60s throwback, complete with wood-paneled walls. “It’s who’s in the kitchen that matters,” Caplan says, and the same bakers have been here for 30 or 40 years, making tasty pies like their signature: topped with sliced potato, rosemary, and onion. (Companion beer: The Road to Ruin IPA).
Now it was time to judge New Haven’s best pizzerias, in the categories of best crust; sauce; cheese; and overall pizza experience. We won’t share our findings, but the best overall was nearly a tie. Caplan — who does tours and eats pizza seven days a week — shared his local top 10. Wait, 10? That’s six more pizzerias to try. Looks like there will be more New Haven pizza in our future — but not anytime soon.
So, was the “apizza” good? Absolutely. Was it better than Boston classics like Pizzeria Regina (the OG) and Santarpio’s? You’ve gotta be kidding.
www.tasteofnewhaven.com. Six-hour pizza tours, $75 per person.
Where to stay and eat
The Graduate New Haven (www.graduatehotels.com; from $159) is colorful, homey, and centrally located, occupying the space of the former Hotel Duncan on Chapel Street. Cheeky touches abound; there’s even a pizza pay phone (a direct line to Modern Apizza) in the lobby. Chapel Street is lined with restaurants of every description. One we like: Claire’s Corner Copia (www.clairescornercopia.com), a kosher veggie place that’s a local institution. For more info: www.visitnewhaven.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com