179 Union Avenue, West Haven, CT 06516 (map); 230-934-1949 zuppardisapizza.com
Pizza style: Sort of like New Haven style, but thicker
Oven type: Gas-fired deck oven
The skinny: Awesome Apizza with the best freshly-shucked clam pie anywhere
Price: $7.50 to $14.50 (for a small to large plain) and around $21 to $30 (for a large market-price freshly shucked clam pie)
It was the Friday afternoon just before Hurricane Irene hit us and Ed and I were on a road trip courtesy of Ford in the Serious Eats Explorer (we've got it for a month, so if you have any must-eat spots driving distance of NY, let us know!) straight up the coast from New York to Massachusetts. Ed and his son were on their way to Martha's Vineyard, while my two friends in the back seat and I were heading to a clam-bake wedding in Plymouth.
Neither seemed like particularly great ideas, what with was supposed to be the hurricane of the century closing in, but I haven't let anything come between me and fresh New England shellfish yet, and I wasn't about to let a force of nature deter me from digging a pit and smoking some lobsters in it.
But of course, as with any road trip, the all-important matter of lunch came up first. Even before we started discussing it, I was pretty sure where Ed was going to lead us. See, both he and Connecticut Slice correspondent Amy Kundrat have waxed poetic about what is supposedly the "best clam pizza on the planet" (according to Ed). As a kid who pretty much grew up eating clam pizzas in New Haven and beyond, this, I had to taste.
Twenty minutes before arriving, Ed placed a call ordering a half sausage/half mozzarella pie (you gotta ask for cheese when you order New Haven style "apizza," as they call it) and a freshly shucked clam pie. That's right, a pie in which each and every fresh live clam is shucked to order.
The fellow on the other end of the line gave Ed quite a bit of trouble about it to. "Yeah, I know it's no good cold.... I know you can't reheat it... We'll be there... yep, you can go ahead and slice it," I heard Ed say several times.
Turns out, the fellow on the phone was right. Had we consulted our talking on-board hyper-intelligent omniscient navigational computer, we would have know that with hurricane-related traffic, our 20 minute trip actually ended up taking about an hour.
We arrived at Zuppardi's to face cold, semi-stale pizza.
See, the problem with fresh clam pie is that, unlike other toppings which can be reheated reasonably well, fresh clams go from tender and succulent to dry and rubbery within a matter of moments. Reheating is a sure trip to rubber-city. Not only that, but a fresh clam pie straight out of the oven has a bottom crust that's still completely intact, carefully cradling the briny juices that ooze out of the mollusks as they cook.
As soon as you slice a clam pie, it's a race to finish it off before the juices soak through the bottom, losing their potent flavor and causing the bottom crust to sog-out. By the time I got to try the Zuppardi's cold clam pie, the crust had already been soaked through. I'd probably never been so disappointed by cold pizza in my life, particularly because my expectations were so high.
The plain/sausage pie hadn't fared much better. While it was certainly nowhere near as soggy as the clam pie, it still had a crust so stale that it gave my jaw a workout. It was a promise of greatness followed by cold, stale, tough reality.
Lesson learned: Never order your pizza in advance unless you're sure you'll pick it up in time.
I mean, some pizzas—say, a real New York-style or Neapolitan, are still ok when they're cold. They lose crispness, but they remain tender and moist. Zuppardi's was leathery and tough. Though Ed has likened it to New Haven-style apizza in the past, I'd classify it differently. The dough (which is crazy flavorful) is much thicker in the center, placing it somewhere between an apizza and a grandma. It was the thickness that made for a particularly tough experience.
Of course, all of this has to come to a logical conclusion, right?
And it does. After braving the storm in a powerless house, digging holes, and smoking lobsters for, what turned out to be a great weekend, we stopped by Zuppardi's again on the way home, this time playing it safe and ordering only after we sat down.
The pizza was, of course, revelatory. It certainly sets the standard for clam pies everywhere. Better than Pepe's, Sally's, Modern, Abaté, heck, better than anywhere. I mean, who still shucks fresh clams to order? Granted, at about $20 for a small pie or $30 for a large (depending on the market price of the clams), greatness don't exactly come cheap, but believe me, it's worth every single penny (and worth every single minute of waiting for them to come fresh out of the oven). That's not to mention that the sweet, fennel-scented sausage, made in-house and applied in large, juicy chunks is just as fantastic in its own right.
New Haven may lay claim to the original apizza, but West Haven may well have the best.
Hambone, sitting in the trunk of the Explorer with the leftovers agrees.