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The United States of Pizza: Connecticut
If you are only a casual pizza fan, you'd be excused for underestimating Connecticut's contributions to the slice-o-sphere. After all, isn't it NYC and Chicago that get all the attention from TV shows and food writers too lazy to go beyond the tired Big Apple–Windy City rivalry? In fact, parts of Connecticut have had world-class pizza operations for upwards of 85 years. That's not to mention all the relative newcomers (emphasis on relative) that have opened in the nearly nine decades of Nutmeg State pizza ascendancy. Let's take a look at some of the options for those unfamiliar with the state's crusty, cheesy, saucy offerings.
What Makes It Different
Where Slice'rs Recommend
Willington Pizza House, Willington CT
Luna Pizza, West Hartford CT
Harry's Pizza, West Hartford CT
Barbara's Pizza, West Hartford CT
Park Lane Pizza, West Hartford CT
Fat Cat Pie Co., Norwalk CT
Little City Pizza, Simsbury CT
Marco Polo, New Haven CT
Carminuccio's, Newtown CT
Yanni's Pizza, Newington CT
Harry's, Bishop's Corner CT
Most of the pizza journalism that touches on Connecticut pizza focuses on the New Haven area. Why? There are at least five well-regarded pizzerias in or around what is the second-largest city in the state. And the fact that Yalies who do time there end up spreading the gospel doesn't hurt, either. (What do you think the real purpose of Skull & Bones is?)
That might be why the terms "New Haven–style" and "Connecticut-style" seem to be used almost interchangeably. And while we're talkin' terms, the stuff around these parts is called "apizza," pronounced "ah-beetz," a result of the New Haven Italian-American dialect (sort of like how Tony Soprano pronounces "capicola" as "gabbagool").
Perhaps the most crucial hallmark of the style is its thinness and chewiness. Though crust thickness varies among different New Haven–area pizzerias, they're often noticeably thinner in the center than New York–style pizzas. And much chewier. The closest thing I can compare it to for those who haven't eaten it is a very thin slice of ciabatta bread; a New Haven–style crust is crisp-tough on the exterior with a sort of spongey-chewy interior.
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Other characteristics (or quirks, depending on your viewpoint) are that pies are served whole (no slices); that they are often (but not always) cooked in large coal-fired bakery ovens; and, maybe most crucial to out-of-staters, the fact that a "plain" New Haven apizza is crust, tomato sauce, oregano, and a little bit of grated Romano cheese. Mozzarella cheese is a topping; you have to order it, and it costs extra.
That said, there are good pizzerias outside New Haven—some hew to the style described above, some incorporate elements, and some deviate completely from it.
New Haven Area
Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana
Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana has been operating on Wooster Street in New Haven since 1925. In that year, Frank Pepe, originally a baker, got tired of trying to keep track of his bread deliveries (he was illiterate) and, at the suggestion of his wife, switched to making a product people would have to come to him for — pizza.
The original coal-fired bakery oven, at 163 Wooster Street, was used as the pizza oven, and business was successful enough that 12 years later Pepe bought the building next door and opened the larger Frank Pepe's that many casual fans are probably more familiar with. (The original Pepe's location still turns out pizzas and is known as Frank Pepe's The Spot. Despite numerous mentions on blogs and such, it still seems easier to get a table at The Spot than at 157 Wooster Street.)
Frank Pepe himself is often credited with having singlehandedly invented the white clam pizza, with the Pepe's website saying:
The White Clam Pizza was most likely an organic inspiration by Frank Pepe; an idea born from the fact that Pepe's also served raw little neck clams from Rhode Island, on the half shell, as an appetizer. This development occurred around the mid 1960's and gradually became popular through the past 40 years. Contrary to what many have heard, Frank Pepe did not have an allergy to cheese and tomatoes and the white clam pizza's evolution should not be attributed to this false malady.
Pepe's is also infamous for its long lines. As at its rival, Sally's, down the street (and we'll get to Sally's in a bit), patrons begin to line up long before the doors open, leaving a line even after the large dining room has filled for the first seating of the day.
Both the larger Pepe's right on Wooster and The Spot, tucked a little bit back from the street, are the more tourist-friendly of the two dynasties, with both appearing to have had remodeling jobs within the last 15 years or so. The larger Pepe's looks almost like an Irish pub, with large, roomy wooden booths, brass accents, and tall ceilings.
Thankfully for fans, Pepe's has now expanded well beyond Wooster Street in New Haven and has Connecticut locations in Manchester; Fairfield; and Uncasville, in the Mohegan Sun Casino; and a New York location in Yonkers. (Slice compared the Yonkers Pepe's and the original Pepe's The Spot in February.)
Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana
New Haven (The Spot): 163 Wooster Street, New Haven CT;
New Haven: 157 Wooster Street, New Haven CT;
Manchester: 221 Buckland Hills Drive, Manchester CT; 860-644-7333
Fairfield: 238 Commerce Drive, Fairfield CT; 203-333-7373
Mohegan Sun: 1 Mohegan Sun Boulevard, Uncasville CT; 860-862-8888
Yonkers: 1955 Central Avenue, Yonkers NY; 914-961-8284
You cannot talk about Frank Pepe's without also talking about Sally's Apizza, just a handful of storefronts west on Wooster Street. In fact, Salvatore "Sally" Consiglio, one of Frank Pepe's nephews, opened Sally's in 1938 after learning the trade at his uncle's pizzeria. Although both families have always been careful to point out to Slice that there's no bad blood between the two operations, it remains the case that to born-and-bred New Havenites, you're either a Sally's family or a Pepe's family—at least according to most New Havenites I've talked to.
What inspires the different loyalties? I can only guess. The one thing I've learned in all these years of Slicing is that pizza is entirely subjective. Personally and foodwise, I prefer Sally's Apizza. The pizzas are similar, but I prefer Sally's crust, which is crisp-chewy but just this side of tough. (I find Frank Pepe's crust to fall on the tough side of chewy.)
I will echo my earlier posts about Sally's and tell you that the wait can be excruciating — much more so than at Frank Pepe's. At Sally's, which only serves dinner, people start lining up long before the 5 p.m. opening time. Even if you're first in line, you'll probably be line-jumped by regulars and/or friends of the family who have the secret reservation number and who will walk in just before the doors open and take up prime real estate. And even if you get in on the first seating, bring a book, magazine, or deck of cards — unless you're one of those regulars, you will face service that's indifferent at best, rude at worst, and slow as molasses. (That's the short of it; for more, I've written about visiting Sally's as a nobody and as a somebody and how different the treatment is.)
That said, if I had an evening to spare, wanted to eat pizza on Wooster Street, and was in a patient mood, I'd choose Sally's.
OK, OK. I know that a lot of New Havenites past and present are now squirming, ready to fire off a comment below to the effect of "There are other pizzerias in New Haven, you know."
Those people either mention Modern Apizza, which I'm getting to here, obviously, or Bar, which I'll get to just after this blurb.
Modern Apizza, originally called State Street Apizza when it opened in 1934, is far off the Wooster hot zone and bit outside New Haven's downtown district. It's in a sort of strip mall–like shopping area and looks like a 1980s rec room inside — which should not deter you.
The pizza here, to me, is still what I think of as New Haven–style but very, very thin. There's almost no rise in the center of the pizza and only a little at the end crust. Ordered with mozzarella, the pizzas will be exceedingly cheesy, which is good, because the sauce is a little bland. For that reason, I'm not a huge fan of the "plain" pizza or a plain with mozzarella. Throw some toppings on, though, and you're in business. It then becomes a stellar example of what I like to call "pizza parlor pizza." Watch out, though, because you'll have to break out a knife and fork to eat even a moderately topped pizza here.
None of that is a diss. I am craving a sausage, onion, and mozz Modern pie as I type this.
874 State Street, New Haven CT
The BruRoom at Bar
The BruRoom at the nightclub simply called Bar is the other off-Wooster pizzeria that Slice'rs always mention when New Haven comes up. More commonly called "Bar," the place serves pizza that I think is closer in form to Pepe's and Sally's than Modern. Bar's pizza is not as thick as the Wooster Streeters but nowhere as thin as Modern. It's go some chew to it but not as much as Pepe's yet is not as crisp as Sally's.
I've liked Bar's pizza, have thought it was good, and appreciate the fact that you can actually get in (particularly at lunch), but I would still rather do Pepe's or Sally's or Modern.
And, yes, we tried the storied mashed-potato-and-bacon pizza (above). It don't think I'm into this pizza as much as some of its adherents are. The mashed potato was an unwelcome texture.
Zuppardi's Apizza, in West Haven, is much-loved by Ed Levine here at Slice–Serious Eats, so I'll quote him:
... The sausage pie was killer, as expected.
The fresh clam pie was even better. The clams were tender, briny, perfect, barely heated through, and their clam liqueur leaked or ran out in every direction. The crust was crunchy, thick enough. This was clam pie prepared by the clam-pizza gods. This was first ballot pizza hall of fame pizza.
Each slice was better than the last.
When we were sated, or should I say when we just couldn't eat any more, although we wanted to, I mentioned to one of the young guys behind the counter that the clam pie was amazing because it appeared to be made from freshly shucked clams.
His retort, "I hope it tastes like freshly shucked clams because that's exactly what was on the pizza. Why do you think it took so long for your clam pie to get to your table? We shucked every one of the clams after you ordered your clam pizza."
179 Union Avenue, West Haven CT 06516
Mulberry Street Pizza
New Haven is easy to get to for an interloping New Yorker. The drive isn't that bad, and even if you don't have a car, you can still take the MetroNorth commuter train to the city. Manchester, Connecticut, on the other hand, is basically a day-trip. Commuter trains don't run that far up, and at 125 miles from NYC, it's basically out of Zipcar range (you get 180 included miles on a Zipcar rental and every mile thereafter costs extra).
But after having been reamed out by Mulberry Street owner Bob Sulik in a Dear Slice letter earlier this year, I figured I'd put his pizzeria on the fact-finding mission.
Given its name, Mulberry Street Pizza seemed like it'd be more a nod to New York–style pizza than New Haven. (Mulberry Street is a well-known street in NYC and pizzerias that try to telegraph NYC-ness often use it.) Oh, and when the menu said "World Famous New York Style Brick Oven Pizza," well, that was another clue.
In truth, Mulberry Street was essentially somewhere between NYC-style and New Haven–style, The pizza was studiously round instead of the haphazard ovals that characterize New Haven pies, the crust was less chewy than New Haven pizza, and the "tomato pie" with mozzarella came with a heapin' blanket of cheese that you often see in places like Ray's.
Toppings and cheese were high-quality, though. And the crust held up well to the oozy, gooey cheese.
The day I visited Manchester, I had in tow former Slice summer intern Aaron Mattis. We agreed that we probably wouldn't do six hours' worth of driving again to get this pizza, but that it was definitely a contender within Manchester city limits and the next few towns around it.
Mulberry Street Pizza
One area that seemed like an overlooked-by-Slice pizza hotbed was West Hartford, Connecticut. When I put out a call for Connecticut pizza recommendations on SE Talk, a number of West Hartford places came up:
- Luna Pizza
- Park Lane Pizza
- Jimmy's Pizza
This was the same trip that included Manchester and would later include a stop in Derby, Connecticut (see below), and Aaron and I only had so much time, so we chose Harry's (which had gotten the most recs) and Luna, which was just down the street from Harry's and had gotten many recs as well.
I thought Harry's was serviceable if you needed a quick pizza fix but neither Aaron nor I were bowled over by it.
It, too, was sort of a cross between NYC-style and New Haven–style, though you'd probably have to spend too much time around pizza to pick up the ways. The crust, again, was chewy in that New Haven/Connecticut way but was less charred or blackened than New Haven pizza usually is. The hole structure, too, was less dense and more airy than typical Connecticut pizzas.
Unfortunately, we didn't think the sauce and cheese didn't really pack all that much flavor and that too much of the crust's flavor came from a dusting of cornmeal on the bottom. Maybe we suffered from the effects of high expectations, though, since so many Slice'rs/SE'rs gave it such high marks. I'd be willing to give it another try next time the Slicemobile makes it up to the Hartford area.
We had some high hopes for Luna Pizza, just down from Harry's. It looked like one of the legion of minimalist Neapolitan-style joints taking the country by storm. Heck, it even has a wood fire in its logo.
But, inexplicably, we watched as our pizza was cooked in a gas-fired steel-deck oven instead of the wood oven that was clearly sitting there un-fired.
What came out was a disappointingly run-of-the-mill Margherita pizza.
999 Farmington Avenue, West Hartford CT 06107
I've still got my original trip itinerary for the West Hartford area, and I want to try Barbara's, Park Lane, and Jimmy's. I'm hoping they can salvage my idea of West Hartford being an overlooked gem of pizza awesomeness. And, heck, if you are a fan of Harry's or Luna, and think we're off base here, feel free to refute in the comments.
When I mentioned my Connecticut itinerary to Ed Levine, he told me I needed to add Roseland Apizza in Derby.
"It's totally old-school, along the lines of Sally's," he said.
I guess I had something else in mind, picturing Sally's 1960s basement romper room decor. But I know what Ed meant. Roseland, like Sally's in New Haven, is stuck in the amber of time (or should I say coagulated pizza cheese?). But this place seems to date to the 1940s.
In fact, that's not too far from the truth. Founded in 1935 by John Scatolini, Roseland used to be a bakery, but Scatolini closed it after his son, Reno, was killed in WWII. His daughter, Lina, however, converted it to a pizzeria and it has remained so to this day.
Nine miles or so from New Haven and about the same age, the pizza at Roseland is, unsurprisingly, similar to the Wooster Streeters. Seafood-topped pies seem to be a specialty, with one market-price pie topped with lobster, scallops, and clams running upward of $65. We skipped that in favor of a white clam pie and a tomato pie.
The white clam pie had briny, fresh clams and was easily a match for Pepe's pie.
Crust is thinner on the Roseland than at either Pepe's or Sally's — more akin to that at Modern but without the floppiness.
I'd give Roseland a strong recommend.
350 Hawthorne Avenue, Derby CT 06418; 203-735-0494
Maybe one of the top 5 pizzerias that made me go HOH, YEAH! in the last year was Colony Grill. This was a controversial rave on Slice. Some people felt this bar-style pizza was not worth the pixels spilled about it.
I think they're wrong. As I said in my original review:
If you're looking for all the crust-analysis BS we usually get into here on Slice (hole structure, char, etc.), this isn't the place for you. This is old-school "pizza parlor" type stuff. Mid-twentieth century greasy American pizza goodness.
In fact, and I mean absolutely no disrespect by this, Colony Grill's pizzas taste like the best Chef Boyardee Pizza Kit pizza you've ever had.
OK. Stop throwing those tomatoes at me. That's not an insult! I happen to love those pizza-kit pies, which are geared toward thinness, crispness, and, if augmented by your own mozzarella, cheesiness. Now imagine a really, really good version of that, and you've got Colony.
172 Myrtle Avenue, Stamford CT 06902 (map)
Most of All, We Want to Hear from YOU
I know this list is woefully incomplete and doesn't have nearly every pizzeria it needs. I've probably missed your favorite place or dissed one of your go-to joints.
If this is the case, vent your feelings in the comments. I want to see what recs and intel you've got in your greasy brain! Type away, Slice'rs, type away!