Makin' it on Wooster St.

Anyone who has ever been to New Haven, Connecticut, fi nds out pretty quickly that there’s somethingspecial about the pizza you fi nd there. First of all, it’s not called pizza; it’s called apizza (pronounced“a-beets”), and there’s a huge sense of pride surrounding the creation of every pie that comes out of theovens—some don’t even make it to the table if the pizza makers aren’t happy with the way they look.

Growing up in New Haven, Lou Abaté always knew he was going to dedicate his life to pizza. At theage of 12, he was already making pizzas full-time in his father’s pizzeria and, with the exception of afour-year stint as a professional magician with his own magic shop, has been a pizza maker ever since.

Humble Beginnings

Abaté’s childhood dream was to own a pizzeria on Wooster Street. “My dad started his pizza businessin 1956, and I used to ask him, ‘If we have the best pizza, why aren’t we on Wooster?’” says Abaté. “In mymind, if you were on Wooster, it meant that you had the best pizza in town.”According to Abaté, everyone who currently owns a pizzeria in New Haven is somehow connected tothe original Wooster Street pizzeria, Frank Pepe’s. Abaté worked for Pepe’s son-in-law for a couple of yearsbefore opening his first place when he was 19 years old.In 1992, when Abaté decided to open Abaté Apizza & Seafood Restaurant in a Wooster Street locationthat had seen 12 restaurants open and fail in the span of nine years, his father warned him of thehigh turnover in the building and steep rent costs. He questioned his son’s plan and wanted to knowwhat he would do differently to make therestaurant a success. Abaté’s answer wassimple: work hard.

“I saw that the other pizzerias on thestreet weren’t serving lunch, so I servedlunch,” says Abaté. “Then I made my restaurantfamily-style to suit all appetites,while others were only serving pizza. Ialso knew that no one on the street wasdelivering, so I delivered.” (To this day,Abaté is the No. 1 pizza delivery restaurantin the area and is credited for pioneeringpizza delivery in the greater NewHaven area in 1984.)“I had to literally marry my business,”he says. “After I helped to raise my daughters,I moved out of the house and into therestaurant, leaving a wife of 25 years whohated the restaurant business.” Abaté andhis current wife, Loretta, presently run therestaurant side by side, living in the apartmentAbaté built above the restaurant.

The Turning Point

Any business usually has a pivotalpoint that turns things around or givesit the boost it needs to get the checkbookin the black. That day came for AbatéApizza & Seafood Restaurant in October1993. “The first year we were open was areal struggle,” says Abaté. “Then one dayI got a call from the Secret Service sayingthat President Clinton wanted to come infor pizza. After that visit, my sales wentup 40%. Everyone who came in wantedto know where the president sat. I alwaystold them, ‘Right there, where you’re sitting!’”

While the president and the firstlady didn’t eat their medium mozzarellaat the restaurant, they did take it to go,and witnesses claim that Clinton said itwas one of the best pizzas he ever had.

Family-Style Dining

While everyone else in the area wasserving solely pizza, Abaté decided toprovide a full Italian menu so that Momcould come in and dine on linguine whileDad feasted on pork chops and the kidssplit a pizza. The menu is extensive andincludes soups, salads, appetizers, pizzas,calzones and sub sandwiches alongsidedishes such as homestyle lasagna, charbroiledchops, veal marsala, chicken piccataand stuffed lobster tails.

Best-selling pizzas include the whitepizza with sauteed fresh spinach and garlic,and the meatball, sausage and baconwith mozzarella.

The Secret

According to Abaté, only five to sixpeople make a real Wooster Street apizza,he being one of them. “As the saying goes,it’s often imitated but never duplicated,”he says. Knowing that the style can nevertruly be duplicated, Abaté decided to divulge“the secret.” “Five elements go intoa Wooster Street pizza,” he says. “Theyinclude method, process, formula, recipeand technique.” Of course, each elementhas its own variables, and each relatesto one another. Factors such as doughweight, oven temperature, importedPecorino Romano cheese and the amountof time the pies are left in the oven all playinto whether you end up with the bestpizza in the world or the worst. “In NewHaven, we say our pizzas are well-done,and there’s an intentional pun there,”says Abaté.

Promoting Pizza

On a street like Wooster, you have tostand out if you want to get noticed. After15 years, Abaté says that he is now theNo. 3 pizzeria on the street, behind FrankPepe’s and Sally’s. And while he relies ona lot of word-of-mouth marketing andenjoys a thriving delivery business, therecent decline in dine-in patrons has ledhim to try some unique promotions.

Abaté decided to produce three commercialsfor a local television station. Thefirst showcased what Abaté said was oneof his most brilliant ideas. “If you can’tbring the mountain to Muhammad, bringMuhammad to the mountain,” says Abaté.Because of rising gas prices and a lack ofparking on Wooster Street, Abaté boughtan inexpensive limo and advertised thathis staff would pick up patrons and bringthem to the restaurant. And, yes, peoplehave already taken him up on his offer!

The second commercial involved theuse of a catchphrase Abaté wanted tostart using for the restaurant. He foundthe perfect customer to pull it off: At theend of the commercial, he says, “Abatéis…ahhh…so good!”

The third commercial he named “OperationPizza,” which he designed as acall-out to area residents to make donationsto the local veteran’s hospital insupport of the men and women who havefought for our country. Abaté also madeweekly deliveries of pizzas to the veteransto show his support. The televisionstation that aired the commercial was soimpressed with Abaté’s philanthropy thatit decided to run the ads for free!

Regardless of his new marketing efforts,Abaté still credits word of mouthas his best marketing tool. And judgingby those in New Haven who have dubbedhim the hardest-working pizza man onWooster Street, those efforts are apparentlyworking in his favor.

Liz Barrett is PMQ’s editor-in-chief.