There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
This week’s Young & Hungry will examine New Haven pizza from several different perspectives: What characteristics define it? What is its connection to Neapolitan pies? And how has it been interpreted by two separate pizza parlors in D.C.?
To put the column together, I conducted hours of interviews with pizza makers both here and in New Haven. I also made a trip to the cradle of American pizza with three of the owners from Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza, and I tried like hell to understand the rules for authentic Neapolitan pizza so I could make a fair comparison between Old and New World pies.
Below are some outtakes from the interviews I conducted. They touch on a number of different topics that I couldn’t examine more in-depth in the column. Take a look after the jump.
On real New Haven pizza and how it compares to pies in Naples:
“Everybody has their own perceptions on what it should it be and how it is. Our customers have gone to Italy, and they say our pizza is better than the pizza in Italy. They’ve even talked to pizzaioli in Italy, and they know of us. And they said, ‘We wish we could try some of their pizza because we’ve heard so much about them,’ and this and that. My grandfather just hit on a recipe, and we haven’t changed it one bit, even with our expansions. We try to keep that consistency the same. Like I said, the pecorino cheese we use: For a small pizzeria, they’re not going to buy it because it’s over $4 a pound. They’re not going to buy that to put on their pizzas. Our tomatoes are premium San Marzano tomatoes. They’re not going to buy that stuff, you know what I mean, because it’s not cost effective to them. They’re going to use the California six-in-one tomatoes, and it’s not going to be the same.” — Gary Bimonte, co-owner of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven
On the use of shaved pecorino Romano cheese on New Haven pizza vs. fresh mozzarella in Naples:
“Fresh buffalo mozzarella, that’s a whole different kind of pie. First of all, with fresh buffalo mozzarella, you’re talking about replacing the mozzarella, not the grated cheese. When you say pecorino Romano, that’s the grated cheese that we put on at the end. You’re going to find that a lot of these clowns, that these new guys like you’re calling that are supposedly trained, a lot of them, they’re not even putting grated cheese on the pizza….They don’t even use it at all. We use fresh pecorino Romano. Some guys will use Parmigiano-Reggiano, but that’s a little strong. That’s a little overpowering…I think one of the most popular pies still today is actually one of pies my father made famous and his brother, who had Modern Apizza, [and that] was the plain pizza, just the sauce and the pecorino Romano and a little oregano and olive oil, no mozzarella at all. I mean, that’s a delicious pizza. That’s where you really taste your tomatoes and your grated cheese. Just the grated cheese. And you go into these newfangled places nowadays, and you ask for a plain pizza, and you’re getting mozzarella. They don’t even know what plain is.” — Rick Nuzzo, owner of Grand Apizza in Cheshire, Conn.
On the idea that some New Haven pizzerias consider their pies real Neapolitan pizza:
“I’ve read a lot about the history of pizza and thought about it a bit….They’re in the same place as I’m going with this pizza. To me, what I’m making is American pizza. When they say it’s Neapolitan, it is because their style of pizza is based on a tradition of Neapolitan pizza…But it’s been interpreted by this layers and layers and years of Americanizing of things. If you’re an Italian, there’s this great history for them, I’m sure. But to me, what that is is American. It’s not replicating a Naples pizza. It’s making a traditional American pizza, which is what I’ve set up to do. My pizza is not supposed to be New Haven-style; it’s supposed to be American pizza, which means it’s interpreted through my layers of interpretation, which is like my father…a Greek immigrant and my mother, an English-Norwegian…That’s an American experience. To me, it’s just adding another layer.” — James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong, which is inspired by New Haven
On the use of breadcrumbs, not cornmeal, on the bottom of New Haven pizzas:
“That was another thing, it was a matter of taste between people. We didn’t like cornmeal because it smokes a lot. When you throw it into the oven, you get a lot of smoke. But even still, I don’t like the way it just kind of sits on the bottom of the pie and keeps the pie very uniform and white underneath, as opposed to that breadcrumb giving you all the different colors underneath, the golden brown, the little black. You know what I mean? It burns in pretty nice. I just like the flavor better with the breadcrumbs.” — Rick Nuzzo from Grand Apizza
On the differences between New Haven and Naples pizza:
“From my experience and having pizza in Naples and having pizza in New Haven, to me there’s quite a bit of difference. I think Frank Pepe is probably closer than almost any other New Haven pizzeria to Neapolitan/Naples pizza…[In Naples the pizzas in wood burning ovens] don’t have the same opportunity to get that same amount of crunch on the bottom and…they specify to use the double aught flour, and that flour is a little bit different than all purpose flour, which everybody in New Haven uses the all purpose flour. So you’re going to get a little bit more tender bread.” — Tom Marr, co-owner and executive chef of Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza
Photo by Darrow Montgomery