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Our New Haven Pizza Adventure


One Day - Three People - Three Pizzerias - Six New Haven Pizzas!

We had heard about it, read about it, even written about it, but we had never actually tasted New Haven pizza. We'd had New Haven style pizza at Tomatoes Apizza in Michigan, but Lillian and Cary had not haunted a booth in a pizzeria in New Haven, CT, eating pizza even once.

It was time.

New Haven is likely the second city of American pizza. If you've read our American Pie section, you know that the first pizzeria in the United States was Lombardi's in New York City, which opened in 1905. Twenty years later, Frank Pepe opened his Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on Wooster Street in New Haven. Modern Apizza opened about a mile away in 1934. In 1938, Sal Consiglio (Frank Pepe's nephew) opened Sally's Apizza just up the street from Pepe's.

Three New Haven Pizzerias

So we were aware that three amazingly great pizzerias, among the best in the country, were mere blocks from each other and a Sunday drive from Long Island.

We had to go.

We weren't going alone. We planned this trip with our good friend Helen, who is a pizza lover and a Connecticut native, but NOT a New Havenite. This is important: in New Haven, where high school newspapers have pizza columnists, people are divided -- Pepe's or Sally's -- you go to one pizzeria or the other, but not both. A New Havenite might not have been as unbiased as we N.Y. pizza snobs, so we brought Helen in from Naugatuck.

The plan was simple: Get to New Haven, meet Helen on Wooster Street (the Little Italy of New Haven), eat New Haven pizza at Frank Pepe's and Sally's Apizza, and if we could manage a third place, we'd go to Modern too. We knew that each of these places had a long wait in line to get in, so we'd have plenty of time to hang out and digest between pizzas.

Sunday morning

9:15 a.m.: We hit the road armed with notebook, camera, and only half our usual breakfast. We got to New Haven without Cary singing the Whiffenpoof Song even once (Google it, youngsters!).

11:15 a.m.We meet Helen in front of Pepe's where there is, amazingly, no line, even though they open at noon on Sundays.

Frank Pepe's with no line!

Oh, one formed quickly enough, but almost all of the line was behind us. We waited excitedly, until the door was opened and we entered and headed straight for a booth. A waitress brought menus. New Haven pizza is divided into 'with' and 'without', so we ordered what would be our standard for the day: One tomato pie (tomato sauce, grated cheese, no mozzarella) and one mozzarella pie. It seemed like our order arrived very quickly - which wouldn't be surprising --

Oven coals at Frank Pepe's


The manager told us later that the huge 14' by 14' oven (more on that in a moment) ran best at about 600 degrees, but the coals got up to 2000! The char on the two pizzas told us that it was probably more than 600 degrees, but we're not oven experts.

With the door to the coals open, we could feel the heat from about 25 feet away!




We tasted the tomato pie first. Cary loved the char on the very thin crust. We all really liked the tomatoes and the way they blended with the grated cheese - which we think was Romano. The cornicione (outer crust) was thin too, not puffy, but the pizza was overall delicious.

The pizza with the mozzarella was thicker at the edge; still not puffy but it had a nice little rise and the crust was not as blackened. Cary thought he detected some cornmeal on the crust.

Two awesomely delicious New Haven pizzas. It was gonna be a real good day.

After devouring, we talked to the manager, a friendly guy named Steve, who told us that the big oven in front was 14'x14', which made the gigantically long peels (pictured below) necessary.

Giant Peels at Frank Pepe's!

There was a 'smaller' oven in the back, 10'x10', and the oven next door, in the place called The Spot (owned by the owners of Pepe's and the original location of Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana, was 12'x12'. He told us that with all three ovens going, they could produce 200 pizzas an hour. The numbers were impressive, but the pizza was more so.

We left Frank Pepe's, satisfied but not stuffed, and strolled up the street to see when Sally's would open. Sally's opens at five o'clock on Sundays! It was about 12:30. We were going to have to shift our strategy and do our New Haven pizza tour in historic chronology. Modern Apizza opened in 1934, and we'd eat there next.

As we walked back down Wooster Street, we passed a few of the local older gents sitting outside a social club, on folding chairs in the middle of the sidewalk. Reminded us of Sunday afternoons in Bensonhurst. Can't ask for a more Italian-American scene than that!

Lil and Helen in front of Modern Apizza

Lil, Helen, and some guy in front of Modern Apizza

Modern Apizza is about a mile or so from Wooster Street. It was a hot day, so we drove over and sat in the air-conditioned car waiting for someone to show up who could tell us what time Modern would open, since they didn't have their hours posted. About two o'clock, we found out that they open at three. About 2:40, we got out of the car and joined the beginning of the line.

A man came by with his family in tow and asked if this was "one of the good New Haven pizza places." Cary asked him where they were from and the man said they were from New Jersey, but they were driving down from Maine and wanted to try some New Haven pizza. Seems like everybody knows.

Modern opened and we walked in - dark paneling, soft lights, wooden booths - college tavern atmosphere. We again ordered one tomato pie, one mozzarella. These pizzas had SERIOUS char! Even so, the flavor of the dough was superior - a good italian bread taste. Cary thought the tomato sauce was not quite up to Pepe's. Lillian liked the sauce more than Cary did, but found the crust a bit too burnt. Helen and Lillian agreed that the balance between sauce and grated cheese on the tomato pizza was excellent.

Tomato pie at Modern

We all agreed that there was a little too much cheese on the mozzarella (or 'mutz') pizza, but that it wasn't in any way overcheesed.

If we had to compare at this point, the majority decision was that Modern's tomato pie would beat Frank Pepe's, but the jury was still out on the mozzarella pie.

In front of Sally's

We got to Sally's Apizza before it opened at five. Again we were close to the front of the line! What we didn't know is that there is a secret reservation system. It must be secret, because from what we've read, the phone line at Sally's has been busy for at least the past ten years. Still, a large group of last-minute arrivals entered before we did, and Cary did not let the moment pass without loud comment. The word "Reservations!" was, however, enough to shut him up.

Sally's is an old-fashioned place -- it seems like remodeling would be a sin. Lil said it reminded her of DeLorenzo's in Trenton, NJ - wood paneling from a common era: Sally's opened in 1938. It's a family place -- family owned, family managed, and sitting there we felt like part of the family - distaff cousins maybe, but family nonetheless. Flo Consiglio, Sally's widow and ruler of the place, still brings pizzas out to the tables. Cary asked if she would be kind enough to take a picture with us. "No pictures of me!" She waved us away good-naturedly. Hey, she's running a business here! And we were obviously newbies...

Even though we didn't have to wait very long in line, we still had the experience of waiting a long time for our pizza. Good thing we'd been eating all day! This gave Cary a chance to look at the celebrity pictures on the walls... Did you know that Sally's was Sinatra's favorite pizzeria in New Haven?

Finally, the pizzas arrived: one medium tomato, one large 'mutz'. They were beautiful.

Sally's pizza may have been the most difficult to judge. Lillian was concerned that after eating four pizzas in two pizzerias, we might not give Sally's a fair shake - but this was going to be a surprise!

The crust was really good. In terms of consistency, 'chew', and done-ness, we all thought it was possibly the best of the day, but Lillian preferred the flavor of Modern's crust. Helen called it a draw.

Sally's tomato pie

The sauce was bright and tangy. Lil and Helen both liked the sauce at Modern best, Cary was enthralled with the tomatoes at Sally's. We began to wonder if Frank Pepe's was fading into the distance of time...

The mozzarella pie might well have been the best pizza we ate all day. The crust was a little thicker than on the tomato pie, the cheese was delicious and perfectly balanced with the dough and the excellent tomatoes... One surprise -- after Lillian and Helen both talking about how they didn't care for very charred pizza, they loved Sally's mozzarella pizza!

sally's mozz pie

So, what was the best pizza in this town of great pizza? While waiting in line for homemade Italian ices at Libby's Pastry Shop we realized how fortunate we are to be out-of-towners: we don't have to choose! All of us would be very happy having pizza at any of the three fine pizzerias we visited that day. Or we could just go to all of them again!

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