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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Guest Post: New Haven Pizza

(Pizza Guy note: in a divergence from past practice, I have agreed to publish a guest post. Craig Ephraim has been a faithful follower of this blog, and its associated Facebook page, for many years. I knew from some of his previous comments and inquiries that he is not only knowledgeable on the subject of pizza, but a particular devotee of New Haven (Ct.) pizza, which is reputed to be among the best in the country. Sadly, I have not been there, but when Craig told me he'd recently taken a pilgrimage to New Haven, I readily agreed to publish his account here. The only alterations I have made are the addition of links to the pizzerias he references.)

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting the Rochester Pizza Guy. As a subscriber and fan of his for years, we would occasionally discuss my love of New Haven (CT) pizza and my ongoing search to find similar pizza in the Rochester area. As we had lunch (pizza, of course!), he asked me more about what makes New Haven pizza different. He was kind enough to agree to let me put my thoughts down as a post in his blog.
I grew up in the New Haven, CT area, so I may be biased. But, it seems that many of the “Top Pizzerias in America” lists agree with me – New Haven pizza is the best in the country. There are a few characteristics of New Haven “apizza” (pronounced “abeets”) that set it apart. As a style of Neapolitan pizza, it starts with a thin crust. But, this pizza is traditionally cooked in brick ovens fired by COAL! You see, the most famous pizzerias in New Haven made their debut in the 1920s, as southern Italian families immigrated to the Wooster Square area of New Haven, aka: “Little Italy”. Coal was cheap and plentiful back then, and proved to be a successful way to make the ideal pizza pie, as it allowed the ovens to heat to very high temperatures of at least 650degF. The crusts come out firm, yet flexible, chewy, and charred (not burned!) on top and bottom. The dough is made such that bubbles form during the cooking process. While the cornicione has a modest crunch, the pizza requires folding to handle. Some believe that the coal may actually add some flavor to the crust, but I’m not sure I agree, as the coal is used below the surface of the oven, not inside the oven as with wood-fired pizza. Check out the pile of coal in Sally’s kitchen!
New Haven pizza is also a bit messy, topped by a fine layer of “mootz” (as mozzarella is pronounced here) only upon request! A “regular” pie has tomato sauce only! It also traditionally has a decent amount of oil. Be prepared to burn the roof of your mouth on that first bite! The topping options are also what we have discovered sets New Haven apart from other areas of the country. Whereas the typical Rochester pizza joint uses “precooked” bacon, usually cut into very small pieces, New Haven pizzerias start with UNCOOKED bacon in large 1-1.5in strips. Yup! Uncooked! If you love bacon (who doesn’t?!?) you will absolutely LOVE the way these pies come out of these hot ovens. The bacon cooks just enough to give a good feel in your mouth and between your teeth, and the bacon fat renders right onto the slice, making a bacon pie even a little bit sloppier! Get your napkins ready! Check out this bacon pie from Modern Apizza. My mouth is watering!

While bacon is our “go-to pie”, another classic New Haven pizza is the White Clam pizza. While most places start with canned clams, Pepe’s and Modern use fresh littleneck clams, and Pepe’s actually shucks their clams on-site! A traditional white pie with garlic, olive oil, and parmesan cheese, the addition of salty clam pieces make for a gastronomical party in your mouth. I *have* been able to find a couple places in the Rochester area that have a white clam pie, but not on this crust. The combination is award-winning. Don’t believe me? Google it. Check out this white clam from The Spot. Unfortunately, we were so anxious to eat it, that we took a couple bites before the picture was snapped!

These pictures were all taken in May, 2016, when my dad, brother, nephew and I had our second “Pizza Pilgrimage”. This one was in New Haven, our home turf. The first one was in Brooklyn, where, while we enjoyed pizzas at “famous” Brooklyn pizzerias like DiFara’s, Lucali’s, and Totonno’s, we all agreed that New Haven pizza is better than all of them. Again, biased? Maybe. But, check out where places rank in the “best of” lists:

Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, established 1925. The original Pepe’s is now called “The Spot”, and is located right next door to the “new” Pepe’s. In fact, they share a parking lot.

Modern Apizza, established 1934. While Modern’s ovens were originally “coke-fueled”, they are now open flame, oil-fueled brick oven.

Sally’s Appiza, established 1938. Sally’s is known for a “no-frills experience”. Although the service has gotten better with new ownership, don’t be surprised if your waiter throws the pie down on the table and grumbles when your phone is in the way. And, don’t look at the floor or the “bathroom”. You’re there for the pizza.

There are others in the New Haven area that some people claim can be added to this list. We tried a couple of them again during this latest pilgrimage. But, they just don’t compare to this trio.

We all agree that Modern is the best. Sally’s is close (if you can ignore the service), and Pepe’s and The Spot are still better than any other pizza you will try.

Thanks to the Rochester Pizza Guy’s awesome reviews, I have tried out a BUNCH of places in the area that I was hoping would recreate the New Haven experience, or at least come close. While places like Pizza Stop, Fiamma, Tony D’s, and Joe’s Brooklyn (extra-large slices only) come close, they all fail to satisfy the craving for traditional New Haven style apizza I get every time I think of home.


  1. I first tasted extraordinary New Haven apizza at Sally's in 1953. Salvatore (Sally) Consiglio, his wife & lifetime partner, Flo, were along with Sally's uncle, Frank Pepe, emblematic artisans of what is known as "abeetz napoletan".

    It wasn't until 1957, when I moved to New Haven that I became an incorrigible addict and, to this day, at age 84, I constantly think about burning my palate from a pie just delivered to my table. While others wait for their pie to cool and then use hardware to bring this most marvelous food to their mouths, I have already finished the first slice and am well into finishing my second. There is a thin line between pain & pleasure and really savoring a heavenly bite while being scalded is my objective. I always think of knives & forks as translators, but these translators cannot transmit the many nuances that make up a spectacular pie, thus, why ruin a perfect work of art created by the loving hands of a master pizzaiolo? There is no greater pleasure than eating with your hands!

    Is it any wonder that my son, Craig Ephraim, is such a devotee of this perfect food?

  2. I think you scared off other potential commenters, Dad! lol