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December 07, 2009


The Oven Dominic Armato

Pizza appreciation is a funny, funny thing.

Is there any other foodstuff that generates such intense debate and passion? Is there anything else with so many widespread, varied and beloved regional variants? Are any other dishes scrutinized in such obsessive detail? "Best" is a word I'm trying very hard to eliminate from my culinary vocabulary. More and more these days, I find myself detesting the kind of food appreciation that seeks to judge everything on a one-dimensional continuum, where there is some kind of Olympian ideal to which pizza can aspire and everything other than this perfect union of bread and topping is somehow incorrect to varying degrees. How can one say that a Neapolitan pizza is "better" than a New York pizza is "better" than a New Haven pizza is "better" than a Chicago pizza is "better" than a California pizza? How do you even begin to compare them? In extreme cases, sure. If you're in a town with a great Neapolitan pizza joint and a handful of places whose pizza is a baby step above supermarket freezer fare, it's hard not to casually use the word "best" within that context. But generally speaking, I'm more interested in what makes the shining examples uniquely interesting than what makes one "better" than another.

That said, I'm comfortable saying that some pizza towns are better than others. And when looking at lists of the heavyweights like New York, Chicago and Naples, New Haven kind of sticks out. So when you've just moved to within spitting distance of a small-ish New England burg that, despite its size, purportedly houses some of the best pizza in the country, no matter how abhorrent you may find that classification, you have to go visit. And soon.

The KitchenDominic Armato

So we did. New Haven is about two and a half hours from Boston, so we made a Saturday of it. While my gut instinct (no pun intended) is to cruise into town and sample a minimum of three of New Haven's most highly-touted spots, that just wasn't going to be practical on this particular occasion. So when presented with the impossible choice between the big two (Pepe's and Sally's), the young Turk (Modern), and a number of others that are often billed as underappreciated gems, after changing my mind at least seventeen times, I finally circled back to the oldest and seemingly most popular, Pepe's, more officially known as Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana. Frank Pepe came to America from Italy, he opened up a pizzeria, and many decades later it's still turning out stellar pizza. A more detailed history I'm reluctant to provide, since claims that it was the first "American pizza" (not made, as far as I can tell, by the restaurant itself) strike me as rather dubious. But the place IS old, and very charming. Hardwood floors, wooden booths and tons of white tile immediately identify it as a place with some serious history. The menu has pizza. That's it. Pizza and drinks. Which is remarkably refreshing (the narrowness of the menu, that is, not the drinks themselves). Obviously, you make pizza for almost 85 years, you take it pretty seriously. And the kitchen houses a serious pizza oven. It's coal-fired, with an access door no more than a few feet wide, through which you can catch a glimpse of an oven that, if not for the height restrictions, looks big enough to roast a Buick. The depth doesn't quite come across in the photo at the top, but it seems to go on forever in there. Which is probably why all of the pizza peels hanging around the kitchen look to be about fourteen feet long.

Clam PizzaDominic Armato

Clam pizza is the signature pie here in New Haven, so that was set in stone as one of our contenders. The pizzas arrive, large, flat and irregularly-shaped, on rectangular aluminum trays lined with parchment paper. Of course, when it comes to pizza of the thin variety (Chicago deep dish should really be named something other than pizza so we can stop comparing it to everything else), the bread is everything, and in tasting and observing the bread, it's easy to see why Pepe's has made such a name for itself. "Neapolitan" is something of a misnomer, here. This isn't like any Neapolitan pizza I've ever tasted. Larger, for starters, thinner, absolutely, but most importantly, much crispier than any Neapolitan it's been my pleasure to consume. It's an extremely thin pizza, a touch thicker around the edges, beautifully browned all over and lovingly charred in places. It's no cracker crust, but it has a great chew and is remarkably crisp all the way to the center of the exceptionally large pie, partially a result of the oven's fuel, which burns very hot and very dry. The signature clam is very oily, very garlicky (we're talking large chunks) and very delicious, eschewing cheese (unless requested) so as not to bury the large, juicy fresh clams scattered about. A light dusting of dried oregano rounds out the toppings, and there's your New Haven specialty. I thought it could have used a little more clam, and would happily pay for some more on my next visit, but that aside, I can find absolutely nothing to complain about. When I try places that are touted as "the best in the country", I make it a rule to expect excellence rather than transcendence, and truly excellent it was. This is a damn fine pizza, full of character and flavor and a beautiful regional spin. Though I stop short of using such absolute superlatives, this is a pizza that deserves the rep.

Red Pizza with Mushroom and OnionDominic Armato

The deliciousness didn't stop there, however, since I wasn't driving two and a half hours in either direction to try one pizza. For number two, we went with a simple red, topped only with the requisite tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and cheese. And while the unique regional flair of the clam put it over the top for me, I very nearly called this one my favorite. The "sauce" was, I believe, canned tomato unadulterated by anything other than olive oil (though I wouldnt swear to it), but at the risk of going all corporate speak, there was some seriously magical synergy going on here. What struck me at first was that this pizza, laden with wet tomatoes and cheese (though swimming in neither -- toppings are added with restraint), managed to stay relatively crisp in the dead center a good 5-10 minutes after hitting the table, despite the fact that it was mere millimeters thick at that point. The second thing that struck me was an incredible buttery quality to the flavor, so much so that, embarrassing as it was, I felt compelled to ask if they'd worked in some butter somehow. Not a bit, I was told. Something magical about the interaction between olive oil and tomato, I can only presume. In any case, this is some seriously magical stuff.

Two and a half of us nearly polished off two mediums, each of which is theoretically intended to serve 2-3. And with only a few token slices remaining, I was thisclose to ordering another to cart home for late night consumption. I didn't, and I later regretted it. Is it worth five hours of driving? Absolutely. I found myself considering it this morning. There's nothing inherently different about what goes into Pepe's. It's just a perfect example of how perfect technique can take the ingredients usually used to make run-of-the-mill junk and turn them into something truly exceptional. I won't call it "the best" -- I won't call any pizza "the best" -- but I now find myself just a little more sympathetic to those who do.

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Mon - Sat11:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Sun12:00 PM - 10:00 PM


Pizza is the bane of food platonists; to truly appreciate a pizza, you have to abandon all preconceptions on what constitutes a 'true' pizza, and just enjoy what you've got before you.

I grew up in NY, so pizza for me was thin and crispy, with a good char on the bottom and a slight smokiness to the crust. Then I moved to Chicago, and fell in love with the rich, hearty gooeyness you need to get through the winter. After I started working, my newfound disposable income allowed me to learn the difference between mozzarella di buffala and what I grew up with. As my palate improved, I gained started to prefer fewer ingredients that masked the subtle flavors of individual herbs. A few years ago, Cook's Illustrated published a recipe for Pizza Biancha, and I was hooked on that.

Currently, my favorite pizza is one I make myself. I adapted the Cook's illustrated Pizza Biancha dough, add a layer of pesto, thin slices of portabella mushrooms, tomatoes, and artichokes, and just enough parmesan to hold it together and form a nice crust on top without getting too greasy.

I'm still working on it - I've tried to integrate the herbs into the dough instead of adding it on top, but it ruins the texture. Plus, my little oven just can't generate the heat required for a good char on the crust, and I miss the smokiness of a wood-fired oven. Plus, my rudimentary technique yields a very inconsistent outcome.

It's very frustrating - I have it in my mind exactly what I want to taste, but I just can't get there. I think that's true of everyone who orders a pizza with a pre-conceived notion of what it should taste like.

I know you had to just pick one place, Dom, but I can't help but put a good word in for Modern. The pizza is just as good as Pepe's, but you don't have the TOTALLY RIDICULOUS lines you get at Sally's or Pepe's. Since you were making a special trip this may have been of little consequence, but for those of us a bit nearer by, the hours of waiting take some of the joy out of Pepe's.

Damn, I want some of that now! Honolulu is many wonderful things, but alas, it is not a pizza town.

aw, this post makes me melancholy. my dad, who died a few yrs ago, LOVED discoursing upon the best pizza in new haven. he sometimes swore it was pepe's, sometimes swore it was abate's. he would have loved reading your dissertation here.

here's one of his many pepe's posts:

i think of him as a food blogger from before there were food bloggers.

I think IG and Dom both touch on the personal nature that is pizza. I'm originally a Californian, so let's just say eccentric pizza doesn't bother me, and like many, I've eaten the deep dish, the new york, the whathaveyou in the states and Italy. But, it wasn't until I was in Naples eating pizza that I really had pizza. Yes, there is good pie at various places in the states and quite a few in the homeland, but until you go to the birth place of pizza, you have not eaten pizza. One of those appetite-changing experiences.

I would second Stephanie's comments on Modern. I find it a little less greasy. Bar which is close by is very good as well. If you take the drive again, you may want to get one from each to see which you prefer.

I live in New York and try to make it up to New Haven as often as possible for Pizza. I'd have to say Sally's is my favorite, although its got by far the worst lines, waits, and service. Sallys crust is a little thinner then pepes which makes the difference for me. My favorite is just getting a plain (which means tomato pie), that sauce is damn good.

Ya' never know where you might get good, bad, or mediocre pizza, or in what fashion, although I just don't care as much for Chicago style. One of the best pizzas I've had in several years was in Breckenridge, Colorado, of all places, and not at the big pizza joint there, for those of you familar with that ski hill, but rather the joint up the street, with about eight tables.

pizza is delicious and so different everywhere!

I recently went to NY and took a pizza tour and its history in NYC. Very interesting actually. :) The first American piza was actually in NYC called Lombardi's (at least from my tour guide) who was very obsessed with pizza, its origins, and history so I trust him to say the very least. haha.

"The pizza is just as good as Pepe's, but you don't have the TOTALLY RIDICULOUS lines you get at Sally's or Pepe's."

Lines? *pffffft* We arrived ten minutes after opening and strolled directly to a table :-)

(Of course, the horde of poor bastards packed into the entryway as we left were, evidently, not so lucky.)

It's just a perfect example of how perfect technique can take the ingredients usually used to make run-of-the-mill junk and turn them into something truly exceptional.
This is the key to great food of any kind, of course. The only time I ever ate pizza in New Haven, it was the afternoon after a party at Yale, before we made our hung over way back to S. Hadley. I couldn't tell you where we ate, but I still remember the revelation that the pizza we had was.

I play around with the pizza trope myself. After about two years of my favorite being a super thin crust smeared with roasted red peppers and fresh herbs, a small amount of romano, and slivers of prosciutto, I've recently become enamored of a slightly thicker crust, a smear of sweet mustard sauce, edam cheese, and roasted chicken, bacon, and red onion. I haven't gotten the exact thickness of the dough perfect yet, and I keep fiddling with the sauce, but the experiements have been ridiculously good.

Mmm, yay. Nostalgia. (Not just for the New Haven pizza, but for the New Haven-Boston drive I was making twice a week while dating my now-fiancé!)

I'll second the plugs for Modern, whose pizza is (IMHO) on par with the Big Two, and whose lines are generally more reasonable. My favorite New Haven pizza, though, is neither of the above; it's at Bar, where their brick oven pumps out squarish pies even thinner than you could imagine, with a wonderful variety of traditional and unusual toppings (fresh basil, mashed potatoes) and a perfect harmony of ingredients. That's the pie I've craved most since moving away, and it's executed with skill and consistency.

There are a lot of us in the New Haven area! I've been underwhelmed by Pepe's, enjoyed Modern, and need to get to Bar. We live in a suburb and like the pizza in our little town just as much. I've lived in better food places but am quite happy to be near great pizza!

A little off topic, but I humbly suggest that if you are heading to New Haven again that you add a hamburger at Louis' Lunch to your itinerary. I know your time is now short, but I personally think it is worth a stop. Good burger and interesting experience. Best of luck on the move. It is New England's loss!

I have to go with Modern on this one. I do love Pepe's, but I find the charring on the crust can overwhelm the other flavors 1 time out of 4. Modern is much more consistent about that - although, maybe it's some "authenticity" thing that I'm missing.

I'm not so keen on Bar, though. The crust is amazingly crisp and thin - for about 1 minute. Then the rest of the slices you're not holding go soggy and the toppings run off when you pick them up.

By the way, Dom, I've never commented here, but I've been reading for years now. Yours is one of my favorite food blogs - plus, I'm a huge Monkey Island fan ...

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