Decked Out: The gas-fired ovens at Petes Apizza turn out crisper pies than those at Neapolitan joints. s Apizza turn out crisper pies than those at Neapolitan joints.
Decked Out: The gas-fired ovens at Petes Apizza turn out crisper pies than those at Neapolitan joints. s Apizza turn out crisper pies than those at Neapolitan joints. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In all his 35 years at Frank Pepe’s, Gary Bimonte swears he has never heard anyone describe his grandfather’s coal-fired pies as “New Haven-style.” “We’ve always considered ourselves to be a Neapolitan-style pizza, and that’s it,” says the co-owner of the Wooster Street institution in the Connecticut town considered the cradle of American pizza.

To say I’m dumbfounded would be an understatement. For most everyone who has pondered the history of Italian pies, New Haven pizza is considered a style all its own, an American original inspired by classic Neapolitan rounds, not an example of the Naples pizza-making tradition itself. My confusion causes me to push Bimonte. I challenge his claim that he’s never heard his pies called New Haven–style.

“No, not at all,” Bimonte responds, cool as an Amalfi breeze. “We are New Haven. Frank Pepe’s is New Haven. Whenever somebody says ‘New Haven–style pizza,’ they’re referring to Pepe’s…because we were the first ones. So everybody else is just copying.”

Bimonte has a point there. Pepe’s has history on its side; the pizzeria was founded in 1925 by Frank Pepe, just another Italian immigrant looking for work in America during the early 20th century. But unlike many of his countrymen from southern Italy, he was not content with factory labor. He turned instead to baking, and baking, in turn, led him to produce the flatbread he had known since childhood, the pizza. His humble pies were influential almost from the start: Frank Pepe’s landlords, according to company lore, kicked him out of his original space so they could launch their own pizzeria.

New Haven pizza, and Frank Pepe’s pies specifically, have been inspiring copycats—and superlatives—ever since. Former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, after checking on Pepe’s in 2004 to determine whether stories of its decline were true, declared the joint’s slices “still worthy of the Pizza Hall of Fame.” Last year, GQ food critic Alan Richman included both Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza (the latter launched in 1938 by Frank Pepe’s nephew) on his list of the 25 best pies in America. And right here in D.C., the owners of two pizzerias, Pete’s Apizza and Comet Ping Pong, decided to draw their inspiration from New Haven—not New York, and not Naples.

But what exactly attracts critics and restaurateurs (and regular pie lovers) to New Haven pizza? And how do these slices differ from the Neapolitan rounds that have come to dominate D.C. pizza culture in recent years? Or wait: Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions altogether. Maybe Bimonte and his peers are right: When you bite into New Haven pizza, are you, in fact, biting into an authentic taste of Naples?

“New Haven apizza is Neapolitan pizza,” agrees Rick Nuzzo, owner of Grand Apizza, a long-time fixture in the Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven, until it moved to Cheshire, just outside the city. “It is Neapolitan. That’s one of the main things.”

Except strictly speaking, New Haven pizza is not Neapolitan pizza. At least if you put any faith in the rules issued by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture. In 2004, the government collaborated with pizza makers and trade associations to lay out the requirements for Neapolitan authenticity. These standards cover everything from the diameter of the pies (14 inches) to the ingredients used in preparation (00 flour, extra-virgin olive oil, and fresh buffalo mozzarella from Campania for the “margherita extra” pizza), and even the proper cooking equipment (wood-burning ovens that reach 905 degrees Fahrenheit). Any variation from the rules, and you’re considered a Neapolitan imposter.

If these regulations sound onerous (or expensive) to the average pie-maker looking to slap the term “Neapolitan” on the menu, consider this: Last year, at Italy’s urging, the European Union granted trademark status to two specific Neapolitan pizzas, the margherita and the marinara. This means, among other things, that any pizzeria in the EU claiming to make these traditional pies without following the rules could be subject to fines.

Which means if Frank Pepe’s were located across the Atlantic, bureaucrats would descend, demanding payment. Not that Gary Bimonte gives a damn about this.

“I have no idea what the regulations claim, and I really don’t care, to tell you the truth. Not to sound smug or anything, but it doesn’t mean anything to me,” Bimonte says. “What are they going to do? Come after us because we’ve been saying that we’ve been making a Neapolitan-style pizza for 85 years?”

Bimonte, like any pizza maker with trade secrets to protect, is not always forthcoming about how he makes his pies. Some of his tools and ingredients, of course, are obvious—the massive coal-fired oven, which dominates the front room at Pepe’s on Wooster, or the pecorino Romano cheese shaved on each pizza pulled from that white-brick oven, both violations of the official Neapolitan standards. Interestingly enough, the pecorino tradition dates back to Frank Pepe’s earliest days.

“No mozzarella!” notes old-timer Nick Vitagliano, explaining “How Pepe’s Got Started” in Anthony V. Riccio’s book The Italian American Experience in New Haven. “Never, because they didn’t like it anyway, because as soon as it got cool, it was chewy, and they didn’t like that. You know what they called mozzarella that’s warm and strings? They called it ‘a mozzarella telefona,’ because it was like telephone wire.”

Mozzarella (or “mootz,” as it’s known among Italian-Americans) has since become a staple at Pepe’s, but there are undoubtedly other variations from “authentic” Neapolitan pizza at Bimonte’s joint, some of which are not easy to detect, like the flour and tomatoes. Bimonte says Pepe’s uses San Marzano plum tomatoes but won’t discuss the type of flour he mixes for his dough. The chewy texture of a Frank Pepe’s slice would indicate that the pizza dough probably doesn’t include 00 flour, which produces a “more tender crust,” says Tom Marr, co-owner and executive chef at Pete’s New Haven–Style Apizza in the District.

Given the “makeup of the [00] flour itself being that it’s super-, superfine,” Marr adds, “you tend to get a little bit more tender crust. You definitely don’t get as much chew, which is what I think we all really like about the New Haven pizza. It has the kind of chewy texture to it, along with the crunch.”

Chewiness and crunch is exactly what Marr wanted at Pete’s. To understand how to produce such a crust, the chef turned to two of his business partners, Joel Mehr and Alicia Wilkinson-Mehr. Wilkinson-Mehr grew up outside New Haven and became a regular at the original Grand; she introduced her husband, Joel, to the place, and together they became two of Grand’s biggest boosters. Owner Rick Nuzzo would soon become a mentor to the Pete’s team.

Grand’s appeal “was the pizza crust, the dough, the bread, and the fact that he’s so consistent,” Marr says about Nuzzo. “I’ve never had a pizza that’s not the same as it was the last time.”

Nuzzo taught Marr how to make New Haven–style pizza dough, which doesn’t include 00 flour. Truth is, Nuzzo has never even heard of 00 flour. He, like his father before him, has always used General Mills “full strength” flour. Nuzzo also taught Marr about the beauty of gas-powered deck ovens, with their even distribution of heat, and about California tomatoes, which are cheaper than San Marzanos but still make for a quality sauce. The Pete’s owners would eventually adopt all these practices from Nuzzo and would, like their mentor, turn out consistently crispy, full-flavored pies.

If you ask Nuzzo where he learned his pizza-making skills, he won’t tell you he studied in Naples under the finest pizzaioli in the homeland. He’s not that kind of guy; he’s the kind of guy to ridicule that kind of guy. “A lot of the stuff I do, I do because my father taught me that was the way to do it,” says Nuzzo, whose father, Fred, ran Grand Apizza for 50 years. “And I never questioned it. You wouldn’t dare.”

Nuzzo, in other words, draws on tradition; it’s just not the same tradition endorsed by the Italian pizza polizia.

To a large degree, this debate over New Haven pizza—is it Neapolitan or something all its own?—is an economic and academic argument. It’s economic, in that the Italian government has a vested interest in protecting what it considers a wholly original Neapolitan product; not only will a trademark status require wannabe Neapolitan pizzerias to purchase more Italian ingredients, but it will also promote tourism to the mother country to sample the genuine article.

But it’s also academic, in that understanding New Haven pizza is not, in any way, necessary to enjoy it. Even more to the point: Any “understanding” of New Haven pizza is arbitrary on the face of it. Yes, there are general characteristics that “define” New Haven–style pies—a raised crispy crust, breadcrumbs (not cornmeal) on the bottom, shaved pecorino cheese, irregularly shaped pizzas—but every pizzeria in New Haven prepares its rounds a different way.

In late April, I drove to New Haven, where I met three of the owners of Pete’s Apizza for a tour of a half dozen pizzerias, including Sally’s, Frank Pepe’s, Grand, and Modern Apizza. No two slices were alike, and yet all of them had something to recommend them. The crusts on our pies at Modern, for instance, were charred to the point of dehydration; the sauce, as fresh and flavorful as a late-August tomato, was forced to provide all the moisture, while the toppings, particularly the caramelized fennel sausage, were so good I started picking them off the pie and tossing them into my mouth like popcorn. The sausage at Sally’s, on the other hand, smacked of Jimmy Dean’s, and the crust had been stretched razor thin, causing our slices to sag like wet noodles. And yet? That crust, blackened by coal fire and sprinkled with salt, slid down my throat with sheer pleasure.

And what about Frank Pepe’s pies? The “mootz” pizza sports too much oil, but the crust is textbook New Haven: There’s not only a lot of char, but also a complex internal structure of air pockets and stretched dough, which gives the pizza its trademark chewiness. The freshly shucked white claim pie, a Pepe’s invention, tastes like the sea—well, if the sea were infused with garlic.

The wide discrepancies between New Haven pizzerias can create more than a little dissonance for someone like me, who’s looking for common characteristics. Which is why I recently asked Marr from Pete’s if there was any connection between all those slices we sampled in New Haven.

“For me, probably the only major thing is that [the pizzas] are cooked pretty well done,” Marr says. “Some maybe just a little bit more than others. But I feel like they’re pretty much all on the same page when it comes to the pizza’s got to be well done.”

In cooking terms, that typically means a New Haven pizza will spend from five to 12 minutes (or longer) in the oven, depending on the size of the round, compared to the quick-fire baking of a Neapolitan pie, which can be ready after only a minute in the infernal heat of a wood-burning oven. New Haven’s longer cooking times mean more char and more crispiness, those twin characteristics that begin to separate New World from Old World pies.

These characteristics, of course, don’t always play outside New Haven. When Marr and his partners opened their first Pete’s Apizza in Columbia Heights in 2008, they cooked their pies in the New Haven tradition, pulling their rounds from the gas-fired ovens with a healthy amount of char. They soon learned that D.C. isn’t Connecticut.

“When we first started, we were cooking them extremely well done, and we’d get a lot of them sent back,” Marr says. “We kind of went to lesser cooked [pizzas], and even lesser cooked than we do now, and then we got to the point where we’re like, ‘Well, we just really need to educate people, and the best that we can do is to tell people this is New Haven–style pizza. This is what we do.’”

If Pete’s is dedicated to delivering a slice of New Haven to the District, then James Alefantis and his former business partner, chef Carole Greenwood, riffed on the Italian-American immigrant experience for their Comet Ping Pong, which they opened in 2006. Comet, arguably the first D.C. pizzeria to claim New Haven as an influence, never had any desire to replicate the pies up north. Instead, the owners found inspiration both in the ambience of Frank Pepe’s—and in the white clam pizza that its namesake virtually invented out of thin air.

The white clam story goes something like this: Pepe was inspired by a hawker, who was selling the local delicacy on the half shell in an alleyway next to his pizzeria. The pizza man took an incalculable risk in a community often bound hard by tradition: He put those clams on a white pie. It was perhaps the first local, seasonal pizza in American history. The story was not lost on Alefantis.

“That’s about locality, and my food, the food that I like to eat and create, is about locality,” Alefantis says. “The goal was that [Comet pizza] would be local and that New Haven was sort of an inspiration, but what I’m trying to create is Washington pizza.”

In that way, Alefantis may understand New Haven pizza better than some of the people who live with it on a daily basis. To Alefantis, New Haven pizza is about re-invention in a new environment; those Italian-American immigrants may have come from Naples but, whether by necessity or taste, they did not replicate, ingredient by ingredient, the pizzas now deemed classic Neapolitan. They were interpreters, whether they want to admit it or not.

And Alefantis’ interpretation is not New Haven pizza in the slightest. It’s American, in that it freely mixes Italian with American flours for the dough, and it’s local, in that Alefantis buys local ingredients as much as possible. “We’re using all what we can from around here,” he says. “It’s another regional interpretation.”

But Alefantis is also taken by the culture of New Haven pizzerias, their sense of nurturing a neighborhood year after year, generation after generation. He wants to create that same tradition for the residents in his own Connecticut neighborhood—Connecticut Avenue NW.

“All of these people who live around here, who eat at Comet all the time and love it…would go there like they would at Frank Pepe’s and sort of have that taste memory and that kind of sense of almost loyalty or nostalgia,” Alefantis says.

“The pizza in New Haven, it’s really good. But the reason I think why people love it so much is that it was good originally and it reminds them of the freedom and the beauty of being a kid.”

Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza, 1400 Irving St. NW, Suite 103, (202) 332-7383; 4938-4940 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 237-7383

Comet Ping Pong, 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 364-0404