The Holy Grail of “Pizza Napoletana”
Anyone who follows me at all knows this is my (least) favorite word in the food lexicon. “Authentic” is not only in the eye of the beholder (who typically has inaccurate perceptions) but also implies that adhering to an older style lends food some kind of extra “legitimacy.” Of course, any true student of food history knows there are rarely times when a recipe is perfected and frozen. If food-making is in continuous flux today, imagine how less uniform it must have been before recipes were so precisely established. In short, anything can be “authentic” or inauthentic, depending on whatever spin you put on it.
But on a holiday visit back to my home state Connecticut, I made a point of earmarking a day for a pilgrimage to the “authentic” pizzerias of New Haven. These family-owned pizzerias typically have lines out the door waiting hours to eat, so I reasoned that the only civilized time to visit might be a mid-week mid-afternoon in the dead of winter when Yale University was still on break. Bingo: my old high school bud Zyg and I were able to walk right into Pepe’s, still in the heart of Wooster Street (NH’s tiny, restaurant-lined Little Italy) and take our choice of the hard wood booths.
Unlike New Haven’s Louis Lunch (which has a strong claim on serving the first hamburger sandwiches), Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana—founded 1925–doesn’t claim to be the first of its kind, but it is certainly one of the oldest continuously-run family pizza places “authentic” to its own way of doing things. That starts with spelling the word “Apizza” and pronouncing it, in rough immigrant dialect “abeets.”
Pepe’s makes a tomato pie claiming to be authentically Neopolitan, but which may actually adhere closer either to the style of his actual hometown Maiori (near Salerno) or just to what was available in ‘20s Connecticut. Thus, it’s a coating of tomato, olive oil, and garlic with oregano and a small portion of grated parmesan rather than basil and mozzerella (you can get both added on today—as well as shrimp, spinach, whatev).
It’s simple, almost disarmingly so. But it’s also very good: a chewy-crisp crust that’s deeply yellowed by the oil and variably charred, in a modest way that adds actual flavor rather than the “burnt” taste you get elsewhere. The sauce itself is considerably wetter than typical, but it also bursts with fresh tomato flavor and a natural sweetness. It isn’t the most satisfying, perfect, incredible pizza of your life, but there’s something about it that makes you want to love it.
Pepe’s other signature pie is the White Clam, a tomato-free creation that apparently came about in the ‘60s when they served local littlenecks as an appetizer. Now, you can only get them on the pie, fresh nonetheless, with garlic, oregano, oil and a still-reserved amount of cheese—no tomato. This is the real go-to, arriving in a halo of garlic aroma, the clams tender and mild. Even knowing we had two more stops ahead of us, Zyg and I had a hard time not inhaling this one. Pure joy.
Frank Pepe began some curious customs that have become ingrained in the New Haven style: serving on rectangular metal baking trays rather than rounds (which presumably were harder to find, or more expensive back innaday) and almost intentionally not making the pizzas anywhere near perfectly round. Of course, if you look back at the shop’s own copious archival photos, Frank’s own apizza wasn’t so darn asymmetrical–and it also appears to have had puffier edges–not that I wanna bust balls.
A few miles away, Modern has been around since 1935, but everything inside (save the oven and an old sign) has been redone. I guess they could only take the irony of the name for so long. Less rooted in tradition, Modern’s waiters make sure you know that a “regular” or “plain” pie will not have “mootzarell,” as they insist on calling the cheese here (which is the slightly aged variety, not fresh) unless you ask for it.
What arrives is fine, but not nearly as unique as Pepe’s—the saltier sauce could be canned, and the crust is chewier and greasier. I chew and chew as I stare at their recent “Best of New Haven” award from the local weekly and ponder.
Modern’s specialty is the Italian Bomb: thin-sliced pepperoni, crumbled sausage, bacon, peppers and onions on a (necessarily) slightly thicker crust, with “mootzarell”. In terms of sheer decadence, this is a great way to go. The flavor/texture combination and balance is pretty darn fantastic. Talk about umami.
We notice one Budweiser Red Sox pennant-celebrating neon sign, figuring this is the southernmost point where such displays are safe—and the waiter gives a quick tour of much more Sox autographs and such. Apparently the team owners are huge fans, and during the season, demand Modern pizzas be hand delivered to Fenway.
Back on Wooster, Zyg and I were the first of a small line waiting for the 5 pm opening time of Sally’s. Like Pepe’s, Sally’s is still family run—and it’s actually the same family. Salvatore and Tony Consiglio learned the trade from their uncle Frank before opening their own shop a block away in 1938 (there’s also a slightly fancier Consiglio’s restaurant on Wooster which is surely related). Today, Sally’s daughter takes the orders and money (cash only!) and son runs the ovens (“Two pies to go? 15 minutes. No, 20”—we were the first orders of the evening!), The memorabilia on the walls hasn’t changed in decades—casual snapshots of Frank Sinatra’s family and friends (Consiglio’s brother was Sinatra’s secretary, I’m told but can't verify), an actual autograph from JFK, etc—but the décor was redone, I would guess in the early ‘70s.
Their tomato pie, as oddly shaped as possible, must win lycopene points—it’s blindingly bright red—but still is more salty-garlicky-sugary than Pepe’s. The clam pie is made with tiny baby clams that char. It comes in a gorgeous cloud of garlic, but the flavor at first is actually more subtle (‘elegant’ is actually the word that came to mind) than Pepe’s. The crust has a good combination of crispy-chewy-and char, but not much flavor beyond that.
As well as the usual optional toppings–and tuna–Sally’s seems to be known in aficionado circles for off-menu varieties like potato and onion or chopped roasted peppers…but apparently you have to do some befriending before these are forthcoming.
BTW: All of them serve local Foxon Park sodas, including Birch Beer and Gassosa (Italian Lemon), which is a nice touch.
There was a local who waited with us that swore Sally’s beat Pepe’s hands down, but I think that was sentiment talking. As it often does,with pizza. To my palate, there is no denying Pepe’s, although I’m much relieved to read that the old man switched from cooking over sulfurous coke to coal in the ‘60s. So much for Authenticity.
In recent years, Pepe’s (like Anthony’s of Brooklyn) has opened several branches, in Fairfield, Manchester, Danbury and at the Mohegan Sun casino, as well as in Yonkers, NY, but most word seems to be that they’re not quite the same. Of course not, if they really were, who would make a pilgrimage?
The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana 157 Wooster Street New Haven, CT 06511-5709
Modern Apizza 874 State St New Haven, CT 06511-3925 (203) 776-5306
Sally's Apizza 237 Wooster Street New Haven, Connecticut 06511 (203) 624-5271