The famous clam pie at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
New Haven-style pizza — better known as “apizza” (pronounced “ah-BEETS”) to the natives — has created several generations of pie eaters who will settle for nothing less than a crispy, chewy, and charred round straight from the coal-burning ovens at Frank Pepe or Sally’s, both located in historic Wooster Square. That’s the “old Neapolitan neighborhood that is the cradle of American pizza,” according to contributor Nicholas Dawidoff in Ed Levine’s book, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.
Lombardi’s might disagree with that statement, but no one can argue with the devotion that New Haven pizzerias inspire. Consider this line from Dawidoff’s essay in Pizza: “Frank Sinatra, for instance, used to send from New York for a Sally’s pie. (This is nothing; long before Federal Express, the Wooster Square pizzerias were receiving telephone orders from former Yale students and relocated natives whose cravings led them to make arrangements with an airline to have fresh pizzas shipped as far as the West Coast.)”
Or consider the six owners behind Pete’s Apizza in Columbia Heights. Two of them were born and raised in the New Haven area (siblings Michael Wilkinson and Alicia Wilkinson-Mehr); two others (Tom Marr and Joel Mehr) have tasted pies everywhere, from Italy to New York, and still opted to open a business devoted to those black-and-tan rounds made famous in Connecticut.
The owners, in fact, will soon be spreading the New Haven gospel further than their spot in Columbia Heights. They hope to open their second outlet on Wisconsin Avenue NW in late spring and even have a third pizzeria planned for Clarendon, which could open by late this year, unless delayed by construction or the 1,001 other obstacles that slow these projects down.
In preparation for these openings, I met up with three of the owners in New Haven this past weekend to get a better sense of the characteristics that define this prized Neapolitan round. For almost 48 hours, we did little else but eat pizza. We hit six different joints, from Sally’s to Zuppardi’s. We even stopped at Grand Apizza in Cheshire, which is the inspiration behind Pete’s dough and sauce.
It was at Grand where Marr and Mehr got into a discussion with their mentor, Rick Nuzzo, over the ingredients and preparations required for New Haven pizza. You can watch the video here.
It’s an informative three minutes, but it’s by no means complete. Or perhaps I should say that some pizzas we sampled did not conform to the characteristics described by Nuzzo, Mehr, and Marr. Some slices were limp. Some had little char. Some had very little rise and chew. Some seemed to have little or no bread crumbs on the bottom. So over the next few weeks, before Pete’s Apizza opens on Wisconsin, I’ll catalog our visits to the six pizzerias and try to provide some context on New Haven pies and the apparently many minute variations.
Stay tuned to Y&H for more.