By Tracy Morin

Colony Grill, now based in Fairfield, Connecticut, started as a humble tavern serving Stamford’s Irish American community, an area known as the Colony. Open since 1935, the business added bar pies in the late 1940s as a way to feed drinking patrons. The pies were a smash hit, fueling the business’ growth in the decades since to nine units and three food trucks as far south as Florida.

Clocking in at 12”, Colony Grill’s bar pies were the perfect accompaniment to hold up amid revelry at the bar (literally—the stiff, thin crust is designed to be flop-proof). But it wasn’t until decades later that Colony Grill would whip up a simple addition to bring the humble pie to new heights: hot oil. Ken Martin, current co-owner and COO, believes this signature topping was added in the 1970s, and it was a game changer. Spicy oil-drizzled pies would become a prized delicacy of the Connecticut region—and beyond.

Style Points 

“The bar style, tavern style, bar pie—I think it was unique to the Northeast and New England,” Martin says. “It’s served in one size, meant to sit on a bar top, and the thin crust won’t flop and burn your chin when you eat it. It’s almost like a chewy cracker, with a nice chew and crispness, and a unique texture. And it’s super-thin—probably the thinnest out there in terms of pizza styles.”

With origins in dive bars of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, the bar or tavern pizza style is perhaps lesser-known today, though Martin names some famous East-Coast purveyors, like Star Tavern in Orange, New Jersey (established in 1945), and Eddie’s Pizza in Long Island, New York (1941), that are still going strong. A key differentiation for Colony Grill, however, is the hot oil drizzled on top of the pie before baking. Hot oil is listed as a topping right alongside pepperoni and mushrooms, but for many customers, it’s not a choice—hot oil is the pie to order. For those who want an extra kick, they can order Stingers (hot peppers) to grace the pie as well.

Colony Grill

Since the 1980s, pizzas and drinks have made up the entire menu at Colony Grill, and the dough formula is straightforward. “Our dough doesn’t rise too much; it’s a simple crust that sits a half-hour before going into the fridge to be ready for cooking,” Martin explains. “We give it a double pass through the sheeter so it’s thin and cook it in a shallow pan for consistency.” The pans lend both flavor and texture to the pies, Martin notes. They not only help create a chewy, crispy crust, but, as they’re used, the pans get seasoned, adding flavor. The pies are then cooked at a high temperature in propane-fueled deck ovens.

“The word I’d use for our pies is balanced,” Martin says. “The acidity from the tomatoes gives a hint of sweetness to the sauce, which is not overly spiced. The mozzarella cheese is balanced with the sauce. Nothing is going to overwhelm you—it’s a simple enjoyment.”

Then, of course, there’s the key ingredient for many customers: the hot oil. “Our signature topping is a serrano pepper-infused oil you can put on any pizza, and it adds a nice depth of flavor and a nice spice,” Martin says. “That’s by far our biggest seller. We make the oil ourselves, and we make a lot of it! It creates a nice sizzle and gets into the pans, making a nice base for the crust.”

East Coast Expansion

With so many passionate fans of the hot oil bar pie, it was only a matter of time before the style spread to other pizzerias, both in Connecticut and other states. Some of that growth has been orchestrated by Colony Grill itself, as it has opened two locations in Florida in recent years (St. Petersburg and Tampa) to complement its outposts in Connecticut, New York, Virginia and Maryland. Meanwhile, its three food trucks serve events, bringing the bar pie pizza style to wedding guests and corporate parties.

According to Martin, the Colony Grill team fields emails from dedicated fans every week, asking for store openings in their town or requesting shipping for a few pies. While there are no new locations currently in development, the team is not ruling out further expansion in existing markets. Part of the reason, Martin says, is to ensure that Colony’s team members have plentiful opportunities for growth. 

But feeding more customers who are hungry for hot oil bar pies is a useful motivator, too. “It’s a style that has grown in the last decade, and we’ve helped it grow,” Martin says. “We’ve seen a lot of places pop up in Connecticut, New York and the Mid-Atlantic region. We’ve noticed that the style stays the same, but some places add more exotic toppings, like hot honey. Though we’ve seen a lot of hot oil places pop up, we like to think of ourselves as the original hot oil bar pie—and we think imitation is flattery.”   

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s associate editor.

Food & Ingredients