Apizza: A Guide to Pizza in New Haven, Connecticut
80 miles north of New York City is where the Ivy League school, Yale University, is located. It also is home to one of the most unique and best pizza scenes in the country. Before diving into the pizza culture of New Haven, Connecticut, two important distinctions must be acknowledged.
First, pizza is called apizza and pronounced “ah-beets.” Second, unlike many pizzas, mozzarella cheese is not a standard topping. In fact, the classic pie in this city is a tomato pie. It contains fresh crushed tomatoes, oregano, garlic, olive oil and a dusting of grated Pecorino Romano cheese. To go with one of these pies, a local Foxon Park brand soda is an excellent accompaniment. They can only be found in the New Haven area and are made with cane sugar. Some of the choices include birch beer, ginger ale and gassosa, a lemon-lime soda similar to Sprite.
For me, it was a visit 20 years ago that introduced me to the world of apizza. This led to several more visits over time and a deeper curiosity to explore the different styles and locations. Not only will this piece cover “The Big Three,” but four other lesser-known pizzerias in the New Haven area.
Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana
When New Haven pizza is mentioned, the first name that comes to mind is Frank Pepe. Located on Wooster Street in the heart of New Haven’s Little Italy, it was the first pizzeria to launch in the city in 1925. Initially, Frank Pepe, an Italian immigrant from Maiori, worked as a baker on Wooster Street before opening his own shop. Over time, he began making tomato pies with his wife, Filomena and soon enlisted more family members.
One of the key elements of Frank’s pie is the use of a coal-fired oven, which gives the crust a distinctive char flavor. Additionally, the crust has a great chew to it while still staying firm and intact on the bottom without becoming floppy. At the edge of the pizza, there is more of a crunch and a deeper charred flavor compared the rest of the pie. Here, the slices are cut into long strips that resemble trapezoids – a tasty throwback to middle school math.
Although the tomato pie is the classic, the signature pie at Frank Pepe is the white clam pizza. Thanks to the proximity to the coast, there is an abundance of these mollusks. Initially, the idea of seafood on pizza may sound repulsive to some. However, the combination of briny clams, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano and a touch of grated cheese on the thin coal-fired crust is a flavor explosion. Personally, no mozzarella is needed on this pie, as it takes away from the flavor of the clams and garlic. Another way to experience the white clam pie is to add bacon for a smoky surf and turf. In this case, a half white clam and half white clam with bacon is a good mix of both.
Interestingly, the smaller location located behind the parking lot is the one that contains the original oven. Formerly known as “The Spot,” this location generally has a shorter wait compared to the larger location next door. Over several visits, I have noticed that the smaller location has produced superior pies of the two.
My first experience with apizza came after a road trip to Boston 20 years ago. On the ride home, my father insisted that we stop in New Haven. At first, I had no desire to go, especially after seeing the long line in front of Frank Pepe. However, after we finally were seated, the smell of the pie quickly changed that initial apprehension. We had lots of leftovers and the aroma on the ride back to New York was so intoxicating that I couldn’t resist munching on a few more slices.
Over the years, it has garnered lots of well-deserved praise. Specifically, the white clam pie was rated the #1 pizza in America by The Daily Meal on several occasions, most recently in 2017. Even as a New Yorker, it is tough to argue against it being the best pie in the USA. Thanks to its success, Frank Pepe has expanded to ten locations from Yonkers to Boston. Still, a pilgrimage to the original location is a must for the full experience.
Located just a few blocks south of Frank Pepe on Wooster Street is Sally’s Apizza. Interestingly, it was opened by Frank Pepe’s nephew, Salvatore “Sally” Consiglio in 1938. Over the years, a rivalry brewed between the two pizzerias, with people pledging their allegiance to one or the other. Despite the rivalry, there is one area of commonality between the two – the use of a coal oven.Scoring a visit here is not always the easiest, as it opens at either 3PM on weekends or 4PM on weekdays. Also, keep in mind that they are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Given the exclusivity of Sally’s with only one location and limited hours, arriving early is a must to avoid long waits in line. Over the years, I had either arrived too early or had been unfortunate to show up on a day that they were unknowingly closed.These setbacks only built up expectations for this well-known pizzeria. Finally, I was able to be immersed in the Sally’s experience during a January 2016 visit.
Once inside the retro location, the wood-paneled walls and light fixtures resembled dining in a basement man cave. In place of a dart board is a large photo of Frank Sinatra, one of the biggest names who claimed Sally’s as his favorite apizza in New Haven. There is a certain charm to the dining room, harkening back to older television shows. On this visit, it took quite some time for the pizzas to arrive, which is not an unheard of occurrence.
Finally, after about a half hour, the moment had arrived. First up was a classic tomato pie, with a blistering char on the edges that was just enough. The sauce was excellent with plenty of fragrant oregano, a flavorful gem. This pie easily won out over the overcooked pie with mozz and pepperoni, which was overly greasy that overshadowed the aforementioned sauce.
With all of this anticipation, the visit felt like a let-down. While the tomato pie was a good one, the overall experience was underwhelming compared to the lofty expectations. However, I would love to return and give it another shot, as there is a lot of history here. Coincidentally, Sally’s has been recently sold to new owners. Evidently, the pizza-making process will remain the same with the original staff still retaining a major role. Perhaps the new ownership will help breathe new life into Sally’s while preserving the old-school feel.
The third New Haven pizzeria that is often mentioned alongside the Wooster Street stalwarts is Modern Apizza. Located five minutes away from the dynamic coal-oven duo, Modern has an interesting history that dates back to 1936. Originally, it was named Tony’s Apizza after Tony Tolli. Tony was experienced in the pizza industry having co-owned another pizzeria two years earlier. It was re-named Modern in 1944 after being taken over by new ownership.
Initially, Modern used a coke fired oven, which is a byproduct of coal. However, the production of coke came to an end in New Haven in 1967 and they decided to convert to an oil-fired oven. Once again, it was sold, this time to its current owner, Billy Pustari in 1988. Under this new regime, Modern began to become more renowned in the New Haven pizza scene.
After hearing about Modern and only having tried Frank Pepe over the years, a trip was in order to see what it was all about. Over three separate visits, several realizations about the place were made. First, it is a large space with a friendly staff. Second, the most well-known and frequently-ordered pies were packed with toppings. Third, the crust lacked the sturdiness and crispness of other pizzerias in the area, curiously out of sync with topping-filled pizza.
The classic tomato pie with grated cheese was fine, if not unspectacular and seemed to be missing something. More herbs and a bit of garlic would have been an upgrade. Arguably the signature pie is the Italian Bomb. It is a fitting name for a pie filled with three meats – sausage, bacon and pepperoni, three types of vegetables – mushrooms, peppers and onions and some garlic. We never ordered this pie, but went with a sausage pie with mozzarella. While the ground casing-free sausage was excellent with a strong flavor of fennel, the pie itself was a bit heavy handed on the cheese and overly greasy. The crust itself wilted under the weight of these two toppings. We could only imagine how the crust would fare on the Italian Bomb!
Despite the disappointing experience here, it is worth trying for a New Haven pizza crawl. Many locals hold the pizzeria in high regard, lines appear before opening and it ranks highly on several top pizza lists. Thus, it clearly has many fans out there and perhaps it suits a certain type of pizza fan who doesn’t mind a floppy crust.
Up next in this roundup is a spot that isn’t located in New Haven. Ten minutes south of Wooster Street in West Haven is Zuppardi’s Apizza. Similarly, the original owner, Dominic Zuppardi, worked in bakeries over the years before opening the pizzeria in 1934. Fittingly, this makes it the second-oldest pizzeria in the New Haven area. Although Zuppardi’s may lack the clout and coal oven of Frank Pepe, it has two things that the legendary spot doesn’t. Thanks to its low-key neighborhood location, there are no lines or tourists to wrangle with. In addition, there is a phenomenal fresh clam pie on the menu that is completely different than Pepe’s.
Here, when you order a fresh clam pizza, littleneck clams are shucked to order for each pie. Much like Pepe’s, ordering the pie as-is without mozzarella is the way to go. Another key difference is that the pie itself is less garlicky with crushed red pepper and parsley. On the side, lemon wedges are provided, highly recommended to add a tangy kick. These elements result in a unique, clean tasting pizza that allows the clams and the accompanying clam juice to shine. As for the crust, it is also thin and crisp, with a bit of corn meal underneath. Interestingly, the absence of char from the coal-fired oven helps showcase all of the delicate flavors of the pie. Although the “market price” will often result in a minimum of $20-25 for a small, it is well worth every penny.
While the fresh clam pie is the worthy star at this neighborhood joint, their sausage pie is no slouch. Here, the sausage is homemade and arrives as ground nuggets on top of the pie without the casing. Another layer of flavor comes from the fennel seeds in the sausage. As opposed to the clam pie, this one goes well with mozzarella.
After devouring the savory apizza, there is a hidden gem of a dessert on the menu to cap off the meal. Cannoli here is delicate in smaller shells and filled to order. The cream filling doesn’t overwhelm and is well worth taking some to go. There is a lot of charm in this spot, from the friendly waitresses to the locals that frequent it. Zuppardi’s has also received recognition from The Daily Meal on its top 101 pizza list, although the fresh clam pie is surprisingly not the pie mentioned. An ideal afternoon would be a fresh clam pie from here along with a white clam pie from Frank Pepe for the best of both worlds, clam pizza style.
About 15 minutes away from the Wooster Street epicenter off the beaten path in the outskirts of New Haven is the next spot in our roundup. A ride through the stately grounds of Yale University and up a stretch of Whalley Avenue will lead to Westville. Ernie’s Pizzeria dates back to 1971, relatively new compared to the more well-known names. Yet, the pizzeria has a classic homey feel to it. Interestingly, it took three trips to finally get to try Ernie’s. Unfortunately, the first two trips were unsuccessful due to a renovation to the exterior and a vacation, respectively. However, the third time was truly a charm, as we had the place to ourselves at noon on a Saturday.
We were greeted warmly by the owner and sole pizzaiolo, Pat DeRiso, son of Ernie. Each pie here is made by Pat himself, ensuring quality control. Thanks to Pat’s recommendation, we started off with a tomato pie topped with fresh garlic, basil and a bit of grated cheese. Unlike the other pies in New Haven, the crust here was a bit fluffier while it maintained a nice crispness. We really enjoyed this one, as it was simple and allowed for the tomato, basil and garlic to stand out. Also, we ordered a pie with mozzarella, sausage and broccoli rabe. The combination of sausage and broccoli rabe is a nice one and it worked well with the mozzarella. However, we were wowed by the tomato pie so much that this one stood out less comparatively.
While in New Haven, Ernie’s is certainly worth a visit. Here, the place offers a familial atmosphere and will also lack the crowds and hype of the centrally-located New Haven spots. Like Zuppardi’s, Ernie’s doesn’t have a coal-fired oven, but the gas does the trick. Furthermore, this pizzeria has been ranked in the Daily Meal’s top pizza list, climbing into the 30’s in the most recent edition.
In a city with a rich pizza history, it can be tricky for a newbie to make a mark. Over the years, a new name began appearing on the top pizza lists. Hailing from New Haven, BAR was the pizzeria in question with a curious pie mentioned as the “must order.” Located in the heart of downtown, BAR is fittingly named. Not only is it known for pizza, but the facility brews its own beer and serves as a nightclub.
Although it’s not as extreme in today’s age of Frankenstein style mashups, the mashed potato and bacon pie was seemingly unheard of. After years of contemplation and incessant Frank Pepe cravings on prior visits, a January 2016 visit included a stop at BAR on the itinerary. With several universities in the area, it is a go-to for the college students and hence has a much younger feel to it. Ironically, this new-school spot is located directly across the street from the oldest hamburger restaurant in the country. Unfortunately, this attempt to try BAR’s pizza was squashed by a private event. However, a spontaneous visit to the historic Louis Lunch was a great consolation.
Ten months later, attempt number two was a successful one. With several pizzerias on the docket, there was only one pie on the agenda. After setting up shop at the bar in the Bru Room, I ordered a mashed potato and bacon pizza along with one of the house-brewed IPA’s. While waiting, I expected a gluttonous heavy pie that would weigh me down. However, once the medium oval-shaped pie arrived, it was neatly arranged. Small dollops of garlicky mashed potatoes and crisp bacon bits were dispersed across the thin crust. Admirably, the crust held up well with the toppings and had a nice chew yet remained crisp. Along with the stars of the show, the pie wasn’t heavy-handed on the mozz. Another nice element of the pie was the bits of parmesan that baked into the edges of the crust, adding a nice umami to the whole package.
Although this was the only one sampled, the fundamental aspects of the pie proved BAR worthy of inclusion among the vets. At a later date, I plan to re-visit to try some more of the traditional options.
Just a few minutes away from Zuppardi’s is a low-key West Haven pizzeria on the corner of a residential block, Mike’s Apizza. Yet again, this spot came up on the radar thanks to recent inclusions in the Daily Meal Top 101 Pizza List. Not much has been written about Mike’s. In fact, they don’t even have a website. Fortunately, the Daily Meal provides some detail. Mike Buonocore opened it back in 1942 and then moved to its current location in 1975.
During a November 2016 visit, we walked through the dining area and chose a table in the bar area. College football rivalry games dominated the screens and we chatted up the bartender while waiting for the pie. Immediately, we felt right at home in a real neighborhood joint. There are a number of different pies here, including a broccoli rabe and sausage pie that comes recommended. However, we kept it simple and ordered a small pie with mozz along with bottles of Foxon Park Gassosa and Ginger Ale.
At first glance, the pie itself looked like an average one. We felt the same way taste-wise as we had our first bites. Yet, the more we ate it, the more we enjoyed it and appreciated the subtleties. The crust had a good char on the edges and was thicker than the other pies in the New Haven area. Although the crust was thicker, it was crisp and wasn’t bready. The sauce had a nice amount of oregano that complemented the cheese. Sips of the lemon lime Gassosa paired nicely with the pizza and we left satisfied. Once again, this is another spot that would benefit from another visit for one of the pies with toppings.
As a native New Yorker, pizza is not just a staple, but a religion. Thousands of pizzerias dot the streets of the five boroughs in a myriad of different quality levels and styles. Personally, I have eaten at hundreds of them ranging from thin to thick crust, Neapolitan to Greek-style. But, there is something inherently different about how New Haven does it. Is it the water? Is it the fermentation of the dough? Both factors have been mentioned as reasons for the distinct flavor.
After eating at all seven pizzerias which all appeared on the Top 101 Pizza List, two places stand out as the best of the best. Perhaps it is a lust for fresh garlicky seafood over crisp crust, but the white clam pie from Frank Pepe and fresh clam pie from Zuppardi’s are the stars of this city. There is something magical about that combination of fresh clams, thin crust, olive oil, garlic and herbs. Not only are the flavors excellent, but they innovatively challenge the mold of what a pizza is traditionally supposed to have. In fact, David Chang’s thought-provoking Ugly Delicious mini-series discusses this idea. Of course, one of the examples is Frank Pepe’s white clam pie mentioned in the pizza episode.
Coincidentally, Frank Pepe and Domenico Zuppardi hail from the same town in Italy, began as bakers when they arrived to the United States and can claim the two oldest pizzerias in the New Haven area. Are these the reasons for their success? Clearly, we can’t diagnose this as the reason, but it is fitting that they share these commonalities.
Seemingly, places like Frank Pepe and Sally’s own the town with their long history. On the other hand, relatively newer pizzerias like BAR and Ernie’s have been able to make their mark with their pursuit of quality. Thankfully, awareness has spread of the lesser-known places, adding a balance of varieties and styles. I wonder if there are any other hidden gems to discover in New Haven.
Which pizzerias have you visited in this write-up? What were your experiences? Are there any other local spots that we should try on our next trip to New Haven? Let us know below in the comments!
Traveling duo who met via Instagram during New York’s Hurricane Sandy.
Professionals by day, citizens of the world by choice and nomads at heart. Currently living in the best city of the world, Queens New York. Read more...