The battle between New York and New Haven pizza has raged for years, with New Haveners insisting that the apizza (pronounced“a-beets”) that comes out of New Haven would win any contest against a New York pie—some even claiming that ItalianbornNew Haven transplant Frank Pepe invented pizza in America.While the debate will probably never be settled, locals and tourists enjoy benefi ting from the recipes and years of experiencepassed down from generation to generation (it’s rumored that everyone who currently owns a pizzeria in New Haven is in someway connected to the town’s fi rst pizzeria).In the long history of NewHaven’s style of pizza—calledapizza by locals and distinguishedby its thin crust andcharred edges—Modern Apizza(www.modernapizza.com) on StateStreet is one of the originals, open inthesame location since 1934. The beehive-designbrick oven measures 12 by 12 feet insideand cooks at high temperatures; the coolestspot in the oven, says owner Bill Pustari, isa searing 700 degrees, so pizzas cook in six toseven minutes. “They’re really difficult to run,really finicky,” says Pustari of the ovens. “Butwe think they make a better pizza.”
About 80% of therestaurant’s customersare locals andrepeat business. “Idon’t know ’em all byname,” says Pustari,"but I know ’em bywhat they eat—thatguy’s a small sausage, that guy's apepperoni. I know ’em like that.”
Pustari also introduced us to thelocal soda, made in New Haven byFoxon Park Beverages since1922. We sampled the Gassosa(a 7Up-type beverage) and thepopular White Birch (similar toroot beer)—a perfect combinationwith two pies fresh outof the oven: a cheese pie anda pie with sausage, meatballand mushrooms.
Maybe it’s not one of the oldestpizzerias on Wooster Street, but withsomeone like Lou Abaté at the helm, Abaté Apizza & SeafoodRestaurant (www.abaterestaurant.net) is poised to become aWooster Street institution. In the pizza business for more than 40years, Abaté works hard—even living with his wife, Loretta, in anapartment he built above the pizzeria—to fulfill the expectationsof a New Haven pizzeria and at the same time set himself apart byoffering extras such as delivery, lunchtime hours, a menu to pleaseevery palate, and a new service that picks customers up and bringsthem to the restaurant.
“The secret to New Haven pizza,” Abate divulges, “involves fi vekey elements: method, process, formula, recipe and technique.”He goes on to explain that each has its own variables, which canultimately lead to the creation of the best pizza in the world or theworst pizza in the world—a delicate balancing act that New Havenpizzerias perform every day.
Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria (www.pepespizzeria.com) was born from a simple experiment: Ayoung Frank Pepe worked at a bread bakeryon Wooster Street, and one night he decidedto flatten out some bread dough, pile onleftovers and bake it in the oven. Voilà! Firsthe hawked his creation from a traveling cart at localmarkets, selling apizza for 10 cents a slice; later,he bought the bread bakery and opened a pizzeria at163 Wooster Street, in the heart of New Haven’s LittleItaly. Today, that business is in its third generationand still going strong.
“We haven’t changed anything about my grandfather’srecipe,” says Gary Bimonte, grandson of FrankPepe, pointing out the secret dough techniques, qualitytomatoes and fresh garlic used for the pies. “We tryto keep it as traditional as possible.” Today, the businessis known for its original tomato pie (just sauce)and its fresh clam pie, a characteristic topping of NewHaven’s apizza. Additionally, the business has startedto satisfy other Connecticut markets, with recentopenings in Fairfield and Manchester. “To try to keepFrank Pepe’s legacy, we’re expanding,” says Bimonte.
Frank Pepe’s winning formula is simple yet fundamental:Says Bimonte, “Our family strives to give thebest quality product we can at a decent price to keepthe people coming back.” And as far as the many spotsthat now sell apizza—in New Haven and around thecountry—Bimonte points to an old adage: “They cancopy us but can never duplicate us.”
Sal Consiglio opened Sally’sApizza (www.sallysapizza.net) in 1938,during the Depression, when he couldn’t find a job.He was used to making pizza at home, so he, hismom, two sisters and two brothers set up shop onWooster Street using the recipe he learned from hisuncle, Frank Pepe, and had tailoredto suit his own taste. Eventually, heand his wife Flora (better known asFlo) took over the business; whenSal passed, Flo began running thebusiness with her two sons, Boband Richard, and her daughter,Ruth. Today, the business is runmuch the same as Sal ran it in thebeginning. “Sal always said that younever serve what you wouldn’t eatyourself,” says Flo. “I always checkthe pizzas before they go out to thecustomers: if they aren’t right, they get remade.” Nowadays, Bob andRichard run the kitchen, Ruth runsthe floor and register, and Flo likesto say that she just “hangs out,” butit’s clear that she does more. “Howoften does a mother get to hang out with her threechildren when they’re grown? Not very often,” shesays. “I feel I’m very lucky in that respect.”
Rumors of Wooster Street rivalries havecirculated for years, but they simply aren’t true,according to Flo. “Not only are we related, butwe’re very good friends,” she says. “There maybe a rivalry amongst locals, but not amongst thebusinesses.” Flo’s son Bob, who has worked atSally’s for 30 years, agrees, saying that everyone isvery friendly, even taking time to send food to eachother’srestaurants.